Prickly pears – how to eat them, what to do with them

“Prickly pears on a barrow are displayed to the passer-by, opened with a quick turn of the knife and eaten then and there.”

Madame Guinaudeau, Traditional Moroccan Cooking

Prickly pears are also known as Indian figs or nopales, and their scientific name is Opuntia ficus-indica. The plant is a cactus originating from central America (Mexico mostly) but it grows now all over the world in hotter climates where it’s used as a kind of fence to enclose livestock, as well as a source of food.

The colour and the taste

The fruit is technically a berry, and it’s not easy to pick as it (and the rest of the plant) is covered with sharp thorns. As they ripen their colour moves from green, to yellow, and, in the case of some species to red – and even to a dark purple. The slightly mushy, juicy flesh colour ranges from cream to an exciting shocking pink. It has a mild, non-acidic taste – bit boring in fact – so the thing to do is to combine it with something more interesting – a stronger tasting fruit, or even a few drops of bitters.

Selecting a prickly pear

Don’t buy fruit which looks faded or has mouldy spots. Check that the shopkeeper has carefully removed all the thorns – if you buy at a market, they may do this as you buy.. Allow to ripen at room temperature.

You can also eat the tender, young cactus paddles. These have a slight taste of fresh asparagus – you can sometimes find them tinned.

Eating a prickly pear

Peel them carefully – ensuring all the thorns are completely removed, and serve on ice with bitter citrus – lemon, lime, bergamot – sugar or dried chillies. The seeds are edible but hard.

In Mexico they’re thrown into everything – soups, salads, vegetables, smoothies and fruit deserts.

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