(Opuntia sp. – Family Cactaceae)
Prickly pear, Indian fig/pear, Barbary pear/fig, cactus pear, cactus pads, Indian pear, Indian fig, tuna fig
tsabra (Hebrew), fica d’India (Italian), figue de Barbarie (French), indische Feige (German), figo do inferno (Portuguese), higo chumbo (European Spanish), nopales/nopalitos/tuna (Latin America), frangósika (Greek), hintinciri (Indian fig), frenkinciri (European fig)(Turkish), subbar (Arabic), anjir hindi (Persian), nag-phana (Hindi), kaktusviikuna (Finnish), uchiwa saboten (Japanese)
This species develops fruits and vegetables at the same time, with each having a distinct flavour, texture, colour, and culinary application.
The Opuntia species of cacti is firmly established in the Old World, especially around the Mediterranean and in India, as well as in North Africa and Australia. The common Mediterranean species is O. ficusindica, which has several varieties.
The best fruits are said to be those of O. megacantha, presently found in Mexico and the southern US. It is not a minor crop.
In any given year, Mexico, for example, will produce three times more cactus pads
(called nopals in Latin America) than carrots.
Another interesting aspect to these cactus is the insect that feeds on them. These insects (Dactylopius coccus)
are famous for producing cochineal, a natural red dye made by crushing their bodies. This dye is added to many foods and drinks that are red or “strawberry” coloured. So vegans, beware!
In the past, India and Australia made attempts to capitalize on this in order to provide the dye needed for their red military uniforms. Naturally, when man steps in, chaos results. Either the insects fed so heartily that they wiped out the cacti or the cacti multiplied so excessively that they became a plague.
The fruits (prickly pears) are egg-shaped, about three to four inches long, and covered with tiny spines. The vegetable parts are called cladodes or paddles (not leaves).
In Latin America, the smallest and tenderest pads or paddles are called nopalitos (meaning small cacti). Vendors walk the streets early each morning calling out “nopalitos”, and women come out to buy their daily supply.
The fruit appears in a variety of colours – green, yellow, orange, pink, or crimson. Inside, the flesh may be green, yellow, or red, with a melon-like texture.
The seeds are crunchy but can be eaten raw, although they become hard when cooked. They do go well with other fruits in salads or cooked and made into jam.
Combining prickly pears with oranges make a good marmalade.
The best types in the US are the large, purplish-red, Cardona
and the yellow Amarilla
(which means yellow in Spanish), which make a good jelly.
Native Americans dried the fruit for winter use or boiled it down to resemble an applesauce. Spanish settlers boiled it down even further to make a syrupy paste called “queso de tuna” (prickly pear cheese).
Around the Mediterranean, the best fruits are usually pale yellow, but there are some good red ones. In Sicily several large sweet, almost seedless, types are cultivated, with the finest being Surfarina and Bastarduni. In Tunisia the fruits are made into a jam.
The fleshy, spiked leaves take the form of flattish discs or pads stacked one on another, inspiring the American name of “beavertail” for the plants.
Good ones are tender and pleasantly sweet and lacking in acidity. Obviously, they do need to be peeled, but it is advisable to remove the spines first.
The traditional method is to pick the nopalitos first thing in the morning when they are still covered with dew, then rubbing them with sand until the spines come off. Today, the spines are removed by rubbing a sharp knife across them, which also allows the peel to come away easily.
The texture is a mix between soft and crisp; but it is the slippery interior juices, something like okra, that either attracts or repels the average person not familiar with them.
They can be prepared in any number of ways, but they taste best with traditional combinations of tomatoes, pepper, onions, garlic and spices.
Opuntia species have also provided many unusual health benefits and have long been a part of traditional medicines. The fruit is a good source of fiber, Vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.
Early Mexican natives drank cactus pear juice to bring down a fever. It is now known that they may also provide short-term reduction of blood sugar in diabetics, as well as lowering blood cholesterol levels.