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Indian Fig, or Tuna, or Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit
From Prehistory to Today
The Indian fig, or, as it is sometimes called, Barbary fig or tuna, is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species). The Indian fig was originally native to Mexico, but after the discovery of the New World by the Europeans, the prickly pear cactus was quickly adopted and grown around the world for its sweet, delicious and satisfying fruit. Prickly pear cactus (both the leaves and the fruits) have formed a staple part of Mexican cuisine since prehistory, and since the Renaissance the fruits have been popular in Mediterranean countries. Today, the prickly pear cactus fruit is enjoyed just about everywhere!
The Prickly Pear
Protect Yourself from Getting Stuck!
This is the only type of work glove I will use when handling a cactus (any part except the seeds). Regular work gloves are just not sufficient to protect your hands from the spines, especially the almost invisible ones. These gloves and a set of tongs will work nicely to protect you.
Do not try to handle prickly pear cactus leaves or fruit, or any cactus, with tongs that have silicone or nylon heads. You'll just end up with a ton of spines transferring to the food each time you use it. Get plain metal tongs where the spines won't pierce the material.
Growing Prickly Pear Cactus
If you have ever started a jade plant from a leaf, you will find that Prickly Pear cactus is just as easy to grow. Simply put a leaf, or even a small piece of a leaf, a little ways into moist soil, and keep it moist, not wet. After a month or two you will see roots growing out of the bottom of the leaf, and then you can plant your new cactus in the garden. Or, you can start your cactus from seeds, and you will have transplantable plants in about two months. Once established, prickly pear cactus needs absolutely no care.
For prickly pear cactus fruit, you will need to wait about three years for the prickly pear to be large enough to come into flower. In the meantime, you can try the delicious nopales, the leaves of the plant, as a vegetable.
As with all cactus plants, use extreme care when handling any part of the prickly pear cactus. Prickly pear cactus is notorious not only for those big spines you can see, but also for the small, almost invisible spines that can get into your skin and become very painful, and remain lodged there for several days. I strongly recommend that you always wear heavy leather work gloves whenever you are handling a prickly pear cactus!
Using Prickly Pear Fruit
The fruit of the prickly pear should always be peeled to remove the almost invisible spines. Getting a spine in your mouth is an incredibly painful experience! Once peeled, the fruit can be used in numerous ways: served cold and raw; made into a sorbet (wonderful when combined with mint, lemon balm, or sorrel); cooked into a compote; brandied; or made into drinks, pies, jams, jellies, or even ice cream! Indian figs have a texture similar to watermelon, but more grainy, and are incredibly sweet (the green fruits are the least sweet, and the red ones are the sweetest).
Once you try the fruit of the prickly pear, you will want to find more uses for it. As for me, I can't wait for summer!
(To use prickly pear cactus leaves as a vegetable, read all about nopales. Or you can grind up the seeds to make prickly pear cactus flour. Every part of the prickly pear cactus that is above ground (except the spines) is full of nutrition and is safe to eat.)