The first time I tried cactus, I was sitting cross legged on the floor of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace eating Ciao Bella gelato. I guess you could say that I was on a date, as I was on my way to see “Hesher” (2010) at a nearby theater. The movie was okay. The date went nowhere. But that ice cream – twin scoops of Prickly Pear Sorbet and creamy, tangy yogurt – cemented my love of the cactus plant.
I’ve always liked cacti. I have a small succulent and cactus garden at home, and I plan to visit a number of deserts (and cacti) this summer. Still, relatively few people outside of the American southwest are aware that cacti are both edible and delicious.
The most commonly eaten cactus is almost certainly the nopales cactus, also known as Opuntia or the paddle cactus.
Opuntia is a global invader and has come to dominate vast tracts of land in Middle America, Australia, North Africa and South Africa. They might be the tastiest threat to the global economy that the world has ever seen.
Opuntia produces both nopales cactus pads and the prickly pear fruit, which is wildly popular around the world. A vibrant pinkish purple, the fruits are covered in tiny spikes but can be peeled relatively easily.
The fruit inside can be prepared in a number of different ways. It’s popular in drinks, jellies and candies and is also a key ingredient in a handful of traditional distilled spirits. Still, it is most commonly eaten plain.
Whole Foods and Mexican markets often stock the fruit, though I still haven’t been able to find the pears anywhere near me.
Having tried prickly pears – or at least, eaten prickly pear flavored sorbet – I decided that nopales cactus pads would be an obvious next conquest. The first step, of course, was a trip to Mi Pueblo Market.
I can’t stress this enough – when you want to prepare another culture’s food, go to a specialty market. The ingredients will be cheaper and more authentic. Sure enough, I was able to buy 10 cactus pads for around two dollars.
I scrubbed the pads clean, and then used a potato peeler to remove the spikes. At this point, I was stumped. After all, how does one cook a cactus? When in doubt, I tend to fry things, so that’s exactly what I did.
I sliced the cactus pads into French fry-sized slivers before breading and deep-frying them in vegetable oil. I then cooked them until they were tender and served them with salt and pepper.
But then, the next question: What would you expect a cactus to taste like?
Growing up on a steady diet of ’90s cartoons, I thought all cacti were literally filled with salt water for a very, very long time. I envisioned stoic saguaro cacti waiting to be tapped by thirsty desert travelers. I thought the nopales pads would be the same – a bag of fleshy skin holding in a mess of briny goodness.
I was therefore astonished that the cactus pads tasted eerily like green beans.
They were fresh, crunchy and vegetal, and not at all what I expected. I think they would probably be better either pickled or grilled, but still, they were pretty good.
I am road tripping now, from Boston through the South and all the way back to California, so I suppose all that remains is for me to finally track down a prickly pear in its native form, and maybe to purchase it from some windswept roadside stall. It would be delicious, I’m sure, and I know my failed date would approve.
Melissa MacEwen is a rising senior majoring in biology and English. She can be reached at Melissa.MacEwen@tufts.edu.