Friday, December 26, 2003

Eating Cactus


You know the saying "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Well what if life gave you a cactus? In Mexico, you'd do the logical thing and figure how to make something to eat with it.

In Baja California the sea, the desert and the mountains all come together in breathtaking landscapes. The stark desert is dotted with many types of shrubs and cactus including the saguaro, prickly pear and barrel cactus. The prickly pear cactus in particular has been used as food since pre-Columbian times in Meso America. The fruit of the prickly pear is called "tuna" in Spanish and is super sweet. Mexican popsicles or "paletas" are sometimes flavored with this cherry red fruit. The paddles of the prickly pear are called "nopales" and are commonly cooked with scrambled eggs or served in tacos and salads. They have a slippery texture, somewhat like cooked green bell peppers. You can buy the cactus paddles de-spined or jarred in Latin grocery stores.

Another more obscure cactus specialty is made from the barrel cactus or "biznaga" cactus. The pulp of the cactus is candied and made into something called either "dulce de biznaga", or "acitron". It has a mild flavor and the texture is similar to candied dried pineapple. It is eaten as a candy but also used in sweet tamales and picadillo, a sweet savory meat filling with dried fruits. At some Latin grocery stores you can find it in small bars.

Given the difficulty of harvesting cactus, is it worth the effort? Tough to say. While cactus may not one of the all time great ingredients of the culinary world, it is a wonderful example of how resourceful people can be when it comes to finding something to eat. If you are serious about delving deeper into Latin cuisine, you may want to give it a try...