“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi & dragonfruit salad
“Anderson turns the fruit in his hand, studying it. It's more like a gaudy sea anemone or a furry puffer fish than a fruit. Coarse green tendrils protrude from all sides, tickling his palm. The skin has the rust-red tinge of blister rust, but when he sniffs he doesn't get any stink of decay.”
In 23rd century Thailand, a man named Anderson stands in a market and examines an exotic-looking fruit. He doesn't just contemplate its taste potential – his purpose is far-reaching and more sinister than that. Anderson works undercover for a “calorie company” in a future where the world food supply is controlled by a small handful of these biotechnology giants. Genetic engineering is common (though not perfected), seeds are genehacked to be sterile and calorie companies develop viruses designed to kill crops, thus creating a demand for their products.
Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is a steampunk novel at its core. The world has run out of fuel and energy is provided by tightly wound kink-springs. Genetically engineered mammoth-like animals called megadonts are used as beasts of burden, and genetically engineered New People are programmed to serve humans. Emiko is one of these creatures, also known as “windups.” She was designed to be a plaything for Japanese businessmen and was smuggled illegally into Thailand where she is forced to work in a bar. Her movements are stiff and clockwork-like, and her pores are too small to allow her body to cool off in the hot climate. However, her biggest design flaw is her own self-awareness. She knows she's a slave, longs to be free, but battles with the part of herself that is hardwired to serve others.
Emiko learns about a secret seedbank from one of her customers and she passes the information on to Anderson. In return, he tells her about a village where New People like herself live free. Not knowing if either place actually exists, they set out on a path that collides with the Environment Ministry's police force, a gangster known as the Dung Lord, a child queen and a new genehacked plague.
Paolo Bacigalupi does a fantastic job of weaving a world that feels real. While the megadonts and windups are fantastical, it's not difficult to imagine a worst-case scenario where biotechnology companies control so much of the world's food supply, where seeds are sterile and countries are unable to be self-sufficient. In this future Thailand, farmers and scientists attempt to bring back crops previously killed by engineered plagues. New, fertile fruits surreptitiously show up in markets as an affront to the calorie companies. These are small and often temporary victories for farmers attempting to preserve the country's local biodiversity.
Just as Anderson scoured the Thai markets for something new and exotic to genehack and patent, I searched my own local markets for something foreign and strange. I came across this bright pink dragonfruit with “green tendrils” like the fruit Anderson found, and a spiky-looking horned melon more like “a puffer fish than a fruit.” And I didn't need to go to a specialty market, either. I actually found them at my local Vons, looking alien next to a display of apples. I felt Anderson's surprise and wonder in that moment, though dragonfruit can also be found in most Asian markets.
This colorful dragonfruit salad is topped with a tangy foam made from the pulp of the horned melon. If the concept of foam intimidates you, it shouldn't — this foam was created entirely on accident and just happened when I whisked the fruit's sticky pulp. It was another surprise, elicited an “Oh!” from me and kicked this salad up a notch on the fancy scale.
- 1 dragonfruit
- 1 horned melon
- 1 kiwi
- 1 tsp honey
- chili powder
Cut the dragonfruit by slicing it in half lengthwise and carefully scooping out the flesh. Cut into pieces and set aside. Reserve the hollowed dragonfruit halves for serving. Cut the kiwi into small pieces as well and set aside.
Cut the horned melon in half and scoop out the seeds.
Mash the seeds through a fine mesh strainer to collect as much pulp as you can. (You could also blend the seeds very briefly in a blender and strain through cheesecloth.) Whisk the horned melon pulp with the honey until the surface produces a thick foam. The pulp is sticky, so this should happen fairly quickly.
To assemble, arrange the dragonfruit and kiwi in the dragonfruit shells and top lightly with the foam. Sprinkle with salt and chili powder.