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KIWI. It's a bird, it's a shoe polish - no, it's a small, hairy brown fruit with emerald-green brilliance inside

When I was a youngster and my mother sent me to the store for kiwi, I came home with shoe polish. There wasn't any choice. Not anymore. When New Zealand kiwifruit hit the international market several years ago, it quickly became the darling of nouvelle cuisine.

Chefs fell for it instantly - which is not surprising. A slice of round, clear, emerald-green fruit sprinkled with tiny black seeds looks like a jewel, has a delicious, not-too-sweet taste, and a touch of exotica.

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''It's the only naturally green edible fruit,'' says Winifred Morice, a spokeswoman for the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority. ''Of course there are limes , but nobody sits down and eats a lime. The fact that it isn't too sweet makes it complimentary to both sweet and savory dishes,'' she adds.

''In fact, it goes so well with fish it's become quite popular in Japan.''

Although this egg-shaped little fruit - named after New Zealand's indigenous flightless, nocturnal bird - is growing more popular, Ms. Morice thinks nature's little way of packaging has held it back somewhat.

''Many people don't realize that the beautiful green fruit they've seen in color photographs in magazines is inside that brown fuzzy skin.'' She has heard it described as everything from a turtle egg or old tennis ball to a fruit with hair.

But most people aren't too sure what it is in its unpeeled state.

''We were at a food conference last year in Chicago,'' Ms. Morice recalls. ''Although most people knew what they were when we handed them out, one man refused to try it and dismissed it with, 'No thank you. That's that strange vegetable from South America.' ''

Kiwifruit (Actinidia chinesis) is thought to be from the Yangtze Valley in China. The grapelike vines were introduced to New Zealand about 80 years ago.

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Most kiwifruit comes from New Zealand to California by way of surface mail. From there it is shipped around the country.

It is also grown in California. Israel, too, is growing it and will be harvesting its first crop this year.

But there's not much rivalry between the established growers of New Zealand and the budding California industry.

''There's no conflict, because the season for New Zealand fruit is May to October and in California it's from November to April,'' Ms. Morice says. ''New Zealand growers often host California growers and help them out as well.''

She suggests that kiwis may be bought when the fruit is firm, but should not be eaten until they begin to soften. They will soften at room temperature in one to three weeks but may be kept in the refrigerator up to six months.

Ripening may be quickened by placing the fruit in a plastic bag with an apple or banana. Both emit ethylene gas, which will ripen the kiwi in a few days.

''But don't forget to peel them before you eat them,'' Ms. Morice warns. ''And if you whip them up in a blender for a drink, don't process them too long or the seeds will break down and the kiwi will turn gray,'' she adds.

''I like to put a peeled kiwi in the blender with a glass of orange juice, whip it up for a few seconds, pour it into a glass, and top it off with club soda,'' she says.

Here is another of Ms. Morice's kiwi recipes.

Chinese Kiwifruit Salad

1 cup slivered almonds

1 tablespoon butter

2 whole chicken breasts, steamed, boned, skinned, and shredded

1/4 cup soy dressing (recipe follows)

1/2 pound cooked shrimps

1 can (8 ounces) sliced water chestnuts, drained

1 medium cucumber, sliced

4 kiwifruit, peeled and sliced

3 green onions (scallions) sliced diagonally

1 medium head lettuce

Saute almonds in butter until golden. Remove and drain on paper towel. Combine chicken with soy dressing. Chill at least one hour.

Arrange almonds, chicken, shrimps, water chestnuts, cucumber, kiwifruit, green onions, and lettuce in separate bowls. Let guests design their own salads on beds of lettuce and serve soy dressing separately. Or combine, toss with dressing, and arrange on lettuce in large bowl or platter.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Soy Dressing

1/3 cup cider vinegar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard

1 large garlic clove, quartered

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Combine everything in blender except oil. Whirl until smooth. Continue processing while slowly adding vegetable oil.

Makes one generous cup.

Kiwifruit Sorbet

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups water

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

6 kiwifruit

Dissolve sugar in water. Add lemon zest and juice and boil steadily 10 minutes. Chill.

Peel, mash, and sieve kiwifruit. There should be about 2 cups of pulp.

Combine pulp with equal amounts of cold sugar syrup. Freeze until mushy.

Beat when mushy and freeze until stiff.

Serves 6 to 8.

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