How to Eat Cactus: Opuntia And Prickly Pears

This desert dweller has long been sought as a fruit and vegetable.
By Joanadel Hurst
May/June 1984
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Forage and eat cactus, including recipes for the edible pads. 
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In tales about the West, the cactus is sometimes portrayed as a water-bearing plant that saves thirsting cowpokes lost in the desert. But any hungry range rider worth his spurs would know that some types can provide right good eating, too, especially those known as Indian figs, nopales, prickly pears, or beaver tail cacti.



In fact, there are dozens of varieties of these hardy forageables. They're members of the genus Opuntia, which encompasses well over 200 species. These can be divided into two broad groups: the inedible—or at least basically unpalatable—cholla cacti (which have slender, rounded stems) and the edible prickly pears (distinguished by flat pads resembling beavers' tails).



Many people are surprised to learn that some kinds of prickly pear cactus can be found as far east in this country as Massachusetts. For the really good eating types, though, you have to go to the Southwest, where the spiny plants can be seen growing wild along highways and on the open range. In some areas, in fact, they've become so numerous that they're considered a pest weed by ranchers and farmers.

In Mexico, though, the cacti are raised commercially, and the fruit (called tuna) and the edible pads (nopales) are marketed. If you don't have access to wild cactus and can't grow it in a backyard patch, you may be able to find it canned in the Mexican foods section of your supermarket.



Forage and Eat Cactus Carefully

Although it's a great low-cost food, cactus is shunned by most folks simply because they're intimidated by the plant's spikes and bristles. This is understandable, since the spines (which are virtually absent in some species) and the tiny, bristly glochids (the real troublemakers) can inflict irritating wounds. But the fact is, gathering can be a safe and easy task if you use the proper equipment: a sack, a sharp knife, a long handled fork or tongs, and heavy gloves.



To "pick" a pad or pear, jab the quarry with your fork, or grab it with tongs, to get a firm hold on it . . . cut it off at the joint . . . and drop the harvest into your bag.



Once you've gathered a sufficient supply of pads or pears and brought them home, you can proceed to remove their bristles and spines: Again using your fork or tongs, hold your wild fruit or vegetable under running water and scrape the spikes off with a knife (another method is to burn the prickles away over an open flame or a charcoal fire).



If you do get some glochids in your fingers, try running the edge of a blade across the area—in a shaving motion—to extricate them. Tweezers are sometimes necessary for getting rid of the more minute or deeply embedded offenders.



Eating the Fruit

Called Indian figs or prickly pears, the lemon-or plum-shaped fruit of the Opuntia cacti ripen in late September. When mature, their outsides become bright red and the insides turn fiery orange (some varieties—not quite as sweet as the red prickly pear—are yellow on the outside when ripe and green inside). They make fine syrups, preserves, and jellies . . . and, in some parts of Mexico, the tunas are fermented to produce a heady liquor.

But more popular ways to enjoy the fruit are fresh off the vine (after de-bristling the edibles, of course!) and chilled, as a refreshing treat on a hot day. Just cut off the ends, split the pear lengthwise, and scoop out the sweet, jellylike innards with a spoon . . . or peel the fig and eat it whole (it tastes like a giant berry or a tiny watermelon). Some people discard the many small seeds, while others eat them right along with the fruit. The members of some Native American tribes are said to have dried the nuggets and then ground them into flour.



Eating the Pads

The green pads of the cactus (technically speaking, they're stems) can be harvested year 'round. In any event, it's best to choose small, tender specimens. Remove their bristles and spines . . . trim off the edges . . . dice the "meat" into half-inch squares (or simply cut the food into green bean-sized strips) . . . and they'll be ready to use in a multitude of dishes.



You can eat the cactus raw, by itself or in a tossed salad (it tastes like a mild lemon). You can fry it (either unbreaded with diced onions or rolled in egg and flour), boil it (serve it with butter, salt, and pepper), use it in soup, or sauté it and mix it into an omelet. When cooked, although the vegetable tends to become a bit slimy, its flavor is unique and (to most) quite agreeable.

Cactus Recipes

Here's a recipe for a tasty, spicy dish:



Cactus Creole  

2 cups of diced cactus
1 pound of hamburger (cooked and drained)
6 ounces of tomato paste
1 cup of water
1 diced jalapeño pepper

6 1/2 ounces of canned shrimp (drained)
salt and pepper to taste



Mix all the ingredients together in a pan and cook them over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cactus turns a deep green. Serve hot over noodles, rice, or potatoes . . . or in pita bread or a folded tortilla. It's delicious!

Cactus also tastes great with fish. Here's a recipe for pescado, desert-style:



Cactus Over Fish  

1/2 cup of cooking oil

1 clove of garlic (chopped)

1 teaspoon of chili powder

1 cup of flour
1 pound of filleted fish

1 cup of diced and boiled cactus

1/2 cup of water (from the boiled cactus)
1 hard-boiled egg, sliced

2 teaspoons of lemon juice

salt to taste

Heat the oil in a frying pan, sauté the garlic until light brown, and then remove the garlic pieces with a slotted spatula or spoon. Combine the chili powder and flour in a bowl and roll the fish in the mixture. Fry the coated fillets until they're golden brown . . . add the water (be careful to prevent spattering—pour in just a bit at a time). . . reduce the heat . . . and cook the fish for a few minutes longer. When the fish flakes easily, remove it from the pan and serve it smothered in cactus and topped with sliced egg, lemon juice, and salt.


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Post a comment below.

 

JM
7/9/2014 12:49:40 AM
Can someone out there tell me what this fruit is that I bought last night. I'm in L.A. so it is most likely from here or Mexico. It's round- about the size of a small cantalope- about 5-6 inches in diameter.It's round but its irregular. Not a perfect sphere like a melon.The fruit shell itself is green but it is covered with the most vicious needles- like a porcupine's needles- so I'm assuming it's a cactus.Alot of needles. The woman I bought it from said to boil it for 30 minutes and then peel it. She swears it's edible. It must be. I have seen it in other Mexican grocery stores. I'm not going near it til I know what it's called and maybe one of you can confirm its preparation. Thanks, J

mary
10/1/2013 3:45:02 PM
Hello,I have a cactus growing in my yard it has flat beaver tail shape green flats with the red prickley pear fruit growing on top. I wanted to know if this cactus is safe to eat.

Irene Faver
12/10/2010 12:47:09 PM
Hi I live in Mexico. The above address is a mail pick up address. For those of you interested in nopales cactus as a food. It is wonderful in potatoe salad instead of dill pickle but you must cook nopales by cleaning the spines, chopping in 1/4 inch squares and boiling it in salt water with some chopped onion and a clean copper penny, for about 10 minutes. The penny causes the slimy sap to drain off in a colander. Then just rinse it in cold water. You can scramble it with eggs. Make a nopales bacon or ham and cheese omelet,mmmmm. Combine cooked cold nopales, cooked pasta,Chopped ham, chopped onion, minced garlic, and oil and vinegar dressing for a cool summer salad. There are tons of ways to fix it . You can cut it in strips and use it like string beans to make dilled nopales. I can buy it down here already despined and chopped. You must boil it and drain it to use in any recipe. I have seen it in supermarkets in the states. but if you by one plant and break off paddles at the joints after it starts to grow, put them in damp sand, water sparingly, in a warm climate with a mild winter you will soon have a crop. Eat only the young tender paddles let the older part of the plant continue to produce your crop.

Marten
10/25/2010 3:09:00 PM
Opuntia source I reccomend Opuntia ellisiana aslo known as opuntia cacanapa "ellisiana" and Opuntia ficus indica. These 2 have no spines though indica may have one show up here or there. Fruits are good tasting but bland. Do not buy or grow seeds because the seeds may produce plants that have spines. http://www.cactusstore.com/category_3/Opuntia-species.htm

LeAnn Craddock
7/13/2010 6:52:00 PM
Thank you for the valuable information. I'm still looking for several things like edible bamboo. But I also would like to know if there is somewhere that I can buy the prickly pear cactus?

Toni Jamieson
3/17/2009 4:25:55 PM
Have cactus growing in a small area of my yard that multiply very fast. They seem to be the kind decribed in your article ,having small palm sise pads and prickly red pear like fruit on them in the summer. Would these be safe to eat? I have prepared some large pads purchased at the local Mexican store,and put them in some home made salsa. They diden't have much taste and they were slimey like okra,but they really added to the texture of the foods I served them with. I would think that the nutritional value would be great also. ?? Hope to let more people in on this gerat food source soon.

M. Mucha
2/11/2009 1:04:13 PM
Here's a tip when dealing with the glochids of the Opuntia cacti (Prickly Pear and Cholla): The spines will break off below the skin if you try to scrape or tweeze them out. Dab a generous amount of Elmers school glue (the old-fashioned liquid kind - not the paste)onto the spined area - coat it well - then wait for it to dry. The glue will soften the skin and adheare to the spines. When it's completly dry, peel the glue - and the spines - away. Sometimes it takes a couple of times to get them all. This was a helpfull tip I learned while working with the staff at the Phoenix Botanic Garden! Also - be very carefull when consuming any cacti. Almost all contain alkaloids that can be very toxic. Peyote (Lophophora sp.) is a protected plant and gathering it from the wild is illegal. There are many cacti that possess the same 'narcotic' effect - peyote is just the best known. Because of this, poaching has made this plant almost extinct in the wild! Please... don't use this plant! The Opuntia (Prickly pear) family of cacti are fairly safe to consume. They don't have much flavor so they tend to take on the flavor of what they are cooked with. I find that burning the spines off works best. Good luck!

greg abbott
1/12/2009 7:09:27 PM
i am also wondering about peyote and it being "trippy". i think it is is a prosses to make it in to a drug, but not sure. i want to add i am in now way interested in its illigal factors. i just want to know if you eat it will you trip and is there any other cacti that have these effects. i have a garden due to lack of funds and live in s. florida. everyone grows cacti and i would love to dine on them, i do not want to get sick though. also, are barrel and other types ok to eat or just flat stemmed.

Judith_1
10/27/2008 7:02:15 AM
Ive been growing cactus, pieces Ive picked up from Arizona and San Diego but dont know what are really edible. Can you send me pictures of what can be eaten and what may not be good for us.Id also like to find a place maybe locally where edible cactus can be purchased, seems like this could be very important mainstay with todays economic crisis. Thanks

kelley_1
9/29/2008 2:16:11 PM
I'm wondering if common cactus can be dangerous- mescaline-wise.... I know peyote is a cactus but I'm guessing it's pretty distinctive and nasty in flavor lol. I have some of the beaver tail type cactus growing around my house, would love to eat it, but am hesitant to serve it to my family and such without knowing the safety factor.

Sylvia_1
7/16/2008 7:54:38 AM
Is all cactus edible? I have a huge one with yellow flowers. Thank You, Sylvia








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