Friday, July 17, 2009

Eating Chilean pepinos dulces

It’s July, mid winter in Santiago: a mix of sunny days in the 60s, rain in the 50s and cloudy days in between.  Not like mid winter in Illinois, but it’s still winter. 
The feria (“farmer’s market,” thought the vendors are not farmers) is no longer full of peaches, membrillos, melons, papayas, corn and cranberry beans; though some summer crops (tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, etc.) from northern Chile and Peru are still available.  Instead we have lots of spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel bulls, Brussels sprouts, beets, and so on; no cause for complaint, but the fruit is a little limited.  Below is my recent haul:  you recognize citrus, apples, pears, avocados, tomatoes, grapes, kiwis, and bananas.  But what are the odd purple and yellow things in the right front of the basket?
They are pepinos dulces (Solanum muricatum), literally “sweet cucumbers,” but marketed in English as ”pepinos” or “pepino melons,” and incidentally the only fruit in the basket domesticated in South America.[1]
More closely related to tomatoes and eggplant than cucumbers, pepinos are sweet, juicy and refreshing, similar in texture and taste to honeydew melons. When ripe, as in the picture above, they are firm and turn from green to yellowish.  They peel easily with a vegetable peeler, and the soft core can be removed with a paring knife.  Here in Chile they are available year round at reasonable prices; currently between 500 and 1000 CLP/kg ($.45 - .90/lb).


It is usually something of a struggle to learn about the origins and history of Chilean foods, but pepinos evidently have their fans.  In 1996 professors Jaime Prophens,  Juan J. Ruiz, and Fernando Nuez of  the Department of Biotechnology, Universidad  Politécnica  de  Valencia, Spain published “The Pepino  (Solanium mumcarvm, Solanaceae):  A "new" crop  with  a  history” in Economic Botany [50(4):355-368] telling us all we want to know (and perhaps more) about the pepino.  
They report that pepinos, called cachum in Quechua, were domesticated in the Andes sometime before 500 BC, when ceramic representations of the fruit appear in the archaeological record. 
         Mochica                                                                           Nazca                                      
The Spanish were favorably impressed, and named them pepinos, “cucumbers” due evidently to the taste of the green fruit, and perhaps because of their shape—some were longer than round.  Jesuit José de Acosta wrote:
Some of them, the majority, have the length and round similar to cucumbers from Spain, but in the  rest  they  differ,  because  their colour is not green, but purple,  or yellow, or white...  and although because of their shape they are called pepinos, most of them are  round  in all, and others  are of a  different shape,  in such a way, that neither the shape  do they have of cucumber.[2] 
Francisco Pizarro, was also an admirer: .
And there is another fruit that these Indians call cachan that we, the Spanish, have given the name pepino [cucumber], because when they are green they have in a way the flavor of cucumber…  It is a ripe fruit so soft and sweet that one could not speak more highly of anything…. It has a ollexito [peel?] like paper, removing this ollexito there is nothing more to desire.[3] [my translation] .
Later, during the 17th century, pepinos suffered a strange fate, presumably because of their Spanish name.  In Spanish folklore cucumbers are reputed to cause death if eaten after drinking liquor, thus under Peruvian Viceroy Melchor de Navarra Indians were forbidden to “comer pepinos” (eat cucumbers/pepinos) and pepinos came to be called mataserranos, “highlander killers.” [4]
Professor Prophens and his colleagues also report that: .
As  cucumber  is  also  said  to  be  hard  to  digest,  the  same  was  attributed  to  pepino.  This caused  pepino  consumption  to  be  restricted  to Indians,  this  fact  leading  to  a  "social marginalization"  of  pepino. For  example,  the  chronicler  Cobo  wrote  that  "it  is  not  a  refined  fruit  of  those  having  an  appeal  and  esteemed  by  dainty people,  because  it  is  thought  to  be  hard  to  digest."  And  in  the  late  18th  century,  the botanist Ruiz  mentioned  another  false  negative property  of  pepino,  writing  that  "if  many  are eaten,  they  cause  fevers  and  blood  stools." 
And they suggest that these beliefs—along with some cultivation problems--may explanation the failure of pepinos to spread much beyond the Andes.  They are cultivated in New Zealand, and have been exported to Japan at high prices, but in spite of their introduction to much of Europe and North Africa in the 18th century and to California in the 19th they have achieved little popularity outside South America.  
Specialty Produce, the web site of a San Diego based produce distributor comments that: 
The extremely pale flavor of the Pepino melon does not yet seem to fit in with American tastes although many agree its fragrance is memorable. The Japanese especially value this low-key fruit. In South America and Japan, the pepino is enjoyed just as it is, that's it. New Zealand cuisine serves it every way imaginable, as a garnish for soups, fish, or meats; sauced; with prosciutto; as a seafood and fruit salad ingredient; and in desserts. 

It’s a shame they have not achieved greater popularity because they are an attractive fruit, tasty (I don’t find the flavor to be “pale”), low in calories and higher in vitamin C than most citrus—and they would be a valuable addition to the Chilean and Peruvian export economies. 

Meanwhile, if you are Chile (or Peru or Ecuador) enjoy them, and if you are my faithful reader in Southern California, you can expect some seeds in the mail (thought they are usually grown from cuttings) early next spring.

[1] The wild ancestor of the tomato seems to be Peruvian, but evidently the plant was transported to Mexico where it was domesticated.  There is no evidence of tomato cultivation in Peru prior to the Spanish Conquest.  Smith, Andrew F (1994). The tomato in America: early history, culture, and cookery. Columbia, S.C, USA: University of South Carolina Press as quoted in Wikipedia, Tomato, online at Avocados were domesticated in Mexico but spread to South America by 900 AD.  Galindo-Tovar,  Marca ElenaOgata-Aguilar,  NisaoArzate-FerncLndez,  Amaury M.   2008 Some aspects of avocado (Persea americana Mill.) diversity and domestication in MesoamericaGenetic resources and crop evolution. Vol.55 (No.3) . on line at
[2] Acosta,  J.  1987.  Historia  natural  y  moral  de  las  Indias.  Vol.  1. Hispano-Americana  de  Publicaciones, Sevilla, Spain as quoted in  Prohens, Jaime; Juan  J.  Ruiz, and Fernando Nuez.  1996. The Pepino  (Solanium Mumcarum, Solanaceae):  A "New" Crop  with  a  History.  Economic Botany 50(4):355-368 on line at
[3] Romero Gualda, María Victoria. 1983. Indoamericanismos Léxicos En La Crónica De Pedro Pizarro. Thesaurus: Boletín del instituto Caro y Cuervo, Tomo 38, Nº 1:1-34, on line at  
[4] Hernández Bermejo, J.E. and J. León. 1994. Neglected crops 1492 from a different perspective. Pepino: Solanium Mumcarum.  On line at