One of my favourite fruits is the avocado. It is delicious and nutritious and most of all versatile. When I was much younger my mother created an all avocado dinner party for my birthday; from starter to dessert it was all avocado inspired. I still vividly remember the nutty, but sweet taste of the avocado ice cream.
The word avocado comes from the Aztec word ‘ahuacatl’, which means testicle. A reference to the shape and perhaps an indication that Aztec men were well endowed. Due to this reference the avocado was considered a sexual stimulant and were not eaten by people wanting to portray a chaste image. It was also known as the fertility fruit.
Avocados are sometime called butter pears as the fruit was used by sailors in the 17th century as a substitute for butter, and alligator pear, because of the skin colour and texture and shape of the fruit.
The tree is native to subtropical America and is in the same botanical family as cinnamon, camphor and bay laurel. The fruit of the tree is technically a large berry. The avocado is a climacteric fruit (the banana is another), which means that it matures on the tree but ripens off the tree. Sadly though many commercial suppliers are still picking them before they should, which is why in Hong Kong so many are rock hard in the stores; see below for ways to ripen them at home.
The fruit has a long history, for example a water jar shaped like an avocado, dating to AD900, was discovered in South America. According to food historians the earliest known written account was in 1518, while the first use of the word avocado in English dates back to 1696 in an index of Jamaican plants. It was introduced to Asia (Indonesia) in 1750 and found its way to Australia in the late 19th century. It was introduced to California, now a major grower, from Mexico in the 19th century; over 90 per cent of avocados grown in the US are from California. Interestingly, avocados are more expensive in the US than in other countries, because those consumed in the States are almost exclusively grown locally and therefore the labour costs are higher as well as cost for water, resulting in a higher priced end product.
The Hass avocado is the most common as it produces fruit year-round. It accounts for the majority of cultivated avocados in the US and is said to be richer in flavour. According to a variety of sources all Hass avocado trees are descended from a single mother tree. Rudolph Hass was a postman, who insightfully patented the productive tree in 1935; sadly the mother tree died of root rot seven years ago. The next most common type is the Fuerte, which means strong in Spanish.
The avocado tree can be grown at home and used as a decorative plant. The pit (seed) will germinate in either normal soil conditions or, partially submerged in water. If using the pit it will sprout in 4-6 weeks, after which it can be planted in potting soil. To bear fruit it will need a lot of sunlight and a second plant for cross-pollination.
Some people suggest that the avocado is bad for us due to the high fat content, however most of the fruit’s fat is monounsaturated fat and therefore is actually important to the diet; it is the saturated fats you need to avoid.
Avocados have 60 per cent more potassium than bananas and are also rich in B vitamins, as well as vitamin E and K. They are also a good source of fibre, with the highest fibre and protein content of any fruit, and is sodium and cholesterol free.
In addition, avocados are a good source of the phytonutrient lutein, containing about 81micrograms per ounce. Lutein is concentrated in the macula of the eye, and research suggests that adding lutein to the diet may help maintain healthy eyesight as we age; saffron is another source. Also helpful to eye health and general health is lutein’s antioxidant properties.
Buying, Storing, Eating
When placed in the palm of the hand a ripe avocado will yield to a gentle pressure when squeezed. Avocados will turn brown after exposure to air, sprinkle with lemon or lime juice to prevent.
As mentioned it is difficult to find a ripe avocado in Hong Kong. The best way to ripen the fruit is to place it in a brown paper bag with a banana or apple stored at room temperature. It will ripen in a few days due to the ethylene gas (a ripening reagent) released by the other fruit.
The uses of avocado are only limited by the imagination, from a simple meal of it spread on toast (seasoned with salt and pepper) to gourmet cuisine. It works extremely well with chicken and bacon. One of the most well-known uses of avocado is in the dish guacamole, which dates back to the Aztecs.
In Mexico and Central America, the fruit is used extensively – mixed with white rice, in soups, salads, or as part of a side dish with chicken, pork, beef or shrimp. In Peru and Chile it is turned into a mayonnaise like consistency and used in multiple dishes. The Chilean version of Caesar salad contains large slices of avocado. In Kenya, it is often eaten alone as a fruit, or as part of a fruit salad. In Brazil it is added to ice cream, and in The Philippines it is pureed with sugar and milk and served as a dessert.
More Information and Recipes
http://www.avocado.org.au - includes ideas for using the avocado as beauty/skin product substitutes