Trying Tuna – Not what you think!

Cactus garden

While in Peru, we saw a lot of vendors selling tuna, which in English is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (or nopal, cactus fig or Indian fig). We never bought it or tried it until we were backpacking for 3 days in the 2nd deepest canyon of the world. There were cacti of all sizes and types everywhere. The villages we hiked through had gardens filled with prickly pear cacti. So, finally, we picked on and tried it.

Carefully cutting the fruit.

You can eat the fruit regardless of it’s color. We picked one that was reddish, hoping for more sugar content. You have to pick the cactus fruit with a leaf (prefereable a tough leaf, mine was not) to avoid the tiny, almost invisible spines on the fruit. For two days, I was trying to pick out the spines which irritated me to no end. Once you rub off the spines with the leaf, cut it open and eat the inside. It’s really seedy and not as juicy or sweet as I expected. Well, I didn’t really know what to expect but I ended up spitting a lot of seeds out and getting frustrated. But it was a fun experience and something new to try. You can also eat the new growth of the paddles (called nopalitos in Mexico) but once again, use gloves to remove the spines. A nice trick is to use a vegetable peeler and peel the outer skin along with the spines. Chop up the cactus and use as desired. It is quite gummy and viscous (think aloe vera) but is fun in sauces or soups or whatever your heart desires. I found this recipe for cactus pie that is supposed to be similar to apple pie. Next time I’m near prickly pear, I’ll give it a try.

The seedy insides.

Well, just because I didn’t love it I don’t want to discourage you from trying it. The locals pratically live on it and not just because it grows well with neglect. Prickly pear is known to help Type 2 Diabetes, stomach aches and diarrhea. It has a lot of alkaloids, especially phenethylamine, which is the love compound that is in chocolate. It is also known to treat hangovers, but interestingly enough a distilled spirit is made from the cactus in Malta and Saint Helena. The sap can be used as hair conditioner. Most importantly it is known to treat colon cancer, lower cholesterol, prevent blocked arteries, detoxify the liver, balance the pH in the stomach and it’s high in fiber. So, ther’ya go!

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