Melons sweet with tastes of Central Asia
By David Karp
Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 9, 2010
In California, melons are a highlight of the summer breakfast table. In Central Asia, they are a cultural obsession. And that has made for some interesting cross-pollination.
In Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and China's Xinjiang region, hundreds of varieties ripen to perfection in the region's hot, dry summers, producing ultra-sweet, luscious fruits with unexpected flavors such as gardenia and vanilla. Melons overflow the bazaars and are piled by the roadsides. They are celebrated with special holidays; consumed for their medicinal properties; cooked, dried and even stored for the winter in special melon houses.
The inland California climate is fairly similar to Central Asia's, and even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, immigrants arrived in the U.S. with melon seeds from their homelands, in hopes of propagating familiar varieties and flavors, both for nostalgia and profit. They soon found, however, that along with the superb qualities of Central Asian melons come formidable challenges. Sometimes it has seemed that a curse has shadowed aspiring growers.
One of the first and most persistent farmers was Mohammed Saleh, an ethnic Tajik born in 1941 to a family of melon growers in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. He joined the Afghan army, then the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in the 1970s. He was wounded and sent to India for treatment of an injury. In 1982, he ended up in San Jose.
He brought with him melon seeds from Kunduz, which he planted in his yard. They produced large, elliptical fruits with striped, netted rinds and sweet, crunchy, juicy white flesh.
Over the next decade, he selected the most promising types. He eventually focused on the celebrated Asqalan variety, considered his country's best, but only succeeded in producing a high-quality crop when he relocated his Kunduzi Farm to a hotter area on the northwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, in Vernalis, west of Modesto.
Even there, it wasn't easy. He found that his plants, like many Central Asian melons, are much more susceptible than standard American varieties to fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.
The melons sometimes arrived too ripe to sell to stores, said Dennis Weiss, Saleh's former wholesaler at the Los Angeles produce market. The huge size of the fruits — 10 pounds is typical, but some weigh up to 50 pounds, too large for shopping carts and refrigerators — was also a problem for retailers, he added.
Saleh formed a partnership with a local farmer, Bill Alderson, and planted as many as 100 acres, but this proved too much for the limited market.
"We had melons coming out our ears," Alderson recalls.
Four years ago, Saleh returned to Afghanistan to visit family and friends, Alderson stopped farming, and the Afghan melon deal seemed defunct.
But recently Saleh returned to California, where his love for the melons of his homeland drove him, at age 69, to grow them again. "A lot of people were calling him, asking when the next shipment would be, so he finally gave in," says his son Mallik, who is helping him with the farm.
Saleh obtained a fresh supply of seed, made a deal with another farmer in Vernalis to plant 20 acres, and last week his Afghan melons were back in the market, going out to ethnic stores such as Jons Marketplace and Super King.
The Uzbek melon
The melons of Uzbekistan are as diverse and highly reputed among fruit lovers as the cheeses of France, but one type, typically sold in California just as "Uzbek melon," has created the greatest sensation, in more ways than one. Oval in shape, it's supremely sweet, aromatic and delicious. It has a greenish or tan netted rind and creamy, melting white flesh that turns to orange at the center.
"In our taste tests, the Uzbek was No. 1, hands down," says Richard Molinar, a Fresno County farm advisor who has compared several dozen melon varieties in test plantings since 2005. "I became infatuated with its floral aroma, but its shelf life was poor."
The melons started arriving here in 1993, when investors who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union put in experimental plantings of Uzbek melons in the Fresno area, which grew by 1998 to some 200 acres. They hoped to make their fortunes selling to fellow expatriates, but pests, overplanting and inadequate marketing led to financial fiasco, disputes between the investors and allegations of embezzlement.
As recounted in a 1998 Fresno Bee article headlined "Melons & Murder," near the end of a disastrous season in which many of the Uzbek melons were left to rot in the fields, an intruder shot and killed one of the investors, Raisa Altman, 67, just inside the front door of her home in Pacific Palisades. Though the murder remains unsolved, the article connects the killing to the troubled business.
Cultivation of Uzbek melons in the area faded away after that, Molinar says. "People got scared."
But Molinar had saved seed, and this year he gave some to Balakian Farms of Reedley, Calif., to plant half an acre of the Uzbeks. Two weeks ago, they started selling them at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza and San Rafael farmers markets.
For farmers wanting to grow Uzbek melons, the tricky part is obtaining seed, which is not readily available from domestic seed companies or catalogs.
"You just have to know someone" in Uzbekistan says Michael McKenzie of Lucky Nickel Ranch in Eloy, Ariz., who hired farmworkers from Uzbekistan this summer to grow 3 acres of Uzbek melons, which he sold at local farmers markets.
"Customers raved about the melons, which were just as good as the Uzbeks said they would be," he says.
Uzbek melons have not been widely available at Southern California markets for some time, but the demand for them remains. This year, the owners of Bazaar, a grocery in Tarzana that caters to Russian and Central Asian customers, linked up on a Central Asian Melon Hunting online forum with Dennis Stowell of Tom King Farms in Ramona, northeast of San Diego. They agreed to supply him with Uzbek melon seed if he would sell them the fruit, and he planted about half an acre.
On a recent visit, the melons were exquisitely sweet and aromatic, with juicy, melting pulp, but many of them cracked open when ripe, and the leaves of many plants were brown and withered from powdery mildew. Even so, Stowell was so excited to be growing Uzbek melons that he gave the first truckload to Bazaar as a gift.
He intends to expand his planting to 3 acres next year; he also dreams of growing Uzbek melon varieties intended for storage, which taste as bland as potatoes at harvest but convert starches to sugars over several months while suspended from nets in special melon houses. By midwinter they develop a uniquely mellow, musky flavor.
The Hami melon
The one Central Asian melon type that has succeeded commercially so far is Hami, which refers not to a single type of melon but to a diverse range of varieties cultivated in the Xinjiang province, in northwestern China. The kind grown in California is elongated and netted, with very crisp salmon or white flesh that is crunchy and sweet and has a distinctive peppery aftertaste. Compared with other Central Asian varieties, it ships and stores like a rock.
Various types of Hami were grown on a small scale in California as far back as 1990, but it was Mark Hamby, a businessman who visited China between 2001 and 2003, who kick-started the deal by bringing back the seeds of 36 Hami types and planting the most promising ones in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border.
Today, California and Arizona farmers grow more than 1,000 acres of Hami. Production starts in late May in the southern desert, shifts to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in late July and returns to the desert for a smaller crop in October and November.
The west side of the San Joaquin Valley, from Los Banos south to Kettleman City, offers excellent conditions for melons, with hot days and cool nights. On a recent visit, the harvest at a 120-acre planting of Sandstone Marketing in Huron impressively combined industrial scale and careful attention to quality. Just after dawn, a supervisor measured the sweetness of fruit samples before showing workers what to look for in a ripe fruit: dense netting and a golden tinge. The pickers spread out across seven rows, rustling through the leaves to locate ripe fruits, which they hefted onto a wide, slow-moving harvest platform to be brushed, sorted and packed by hand.
Some of the melons are sold through mainstream chains, but about three-quarters of Hamis go to markets catering to customers of Chinese and Russian heritage, shippers say.
It's a long way from the fruits' origins in the fields of Central Asia to California markets, but for many immigrants, traditional melons powerfully recapture memories of home.