Ten years ago, Asian pears were all but unknown. They arrived from Korea, Japan and China packed in individual chain-link foam corsets and cost the earth at 99 Ranch and similar markets. The idea of Ralphs carrying them was unheard of.
Flash forward to the present, and they're everywhere. They've lost the corsets for the most part (one wonders if they burned their undergarments in support of the Equal Fruit Act), and they appear in every grocery store. They've even made it into the Latino grocery stores.
The problem, however, is that like a lot of fruit, the ones destined for the large-chain grocery stores are picked underripe, to allow for easier shipping. The consumer bites into the fruit and wonders why anyone would pay a premium for it.
Buy a tree-ripened pear (now that they are in massive commercial plantation in California) and the difference is obvious: the pear will be juicy, crunchy but still slightly soft, and has a sweet flavor that is reminiscent of honey.
There are two basic divisions: “red” pears, which are actually brown and tend to have light spots, and “green” pears, which may have green tops near the stem and are more yellowish in color. Red pears tend to taste more like honey; green pears tend to be juicier. Both are available now at farmers' markets.
As for what to do with them, they are delicious out of hand, but they also make a great substitution in the traditional Waldorf salad. As a snack, cubes of Asian pear with a few drops of the best balsamic vinegar you can find and a grinding or two of black pepper are a great pick-me-up.