What I love most about the prickly pear cactus are all the stories that come from it. It's beautiful, for sure. And it makes for good margaritas. But the culture and history are fascinating stuff.
Let's dive in.
1. You can eat all parts of the prickly pear cactus
In Mexico, the cactus pads, called nopales, are eaten raw or cooked. They can be blended as juice, sliced in a salad, or cooked with eggs for breakfast.
Tacos with sliced nopal topped with chopped tomatoes and sprinkled with queso fresco are quite delicious.
If you can't find fresh nopales, you may be able to find ones in a jar in the Mexican section of your grocery store.
2. The fruit is the juiciest part
In Mexico and Peru, the fruit, called tuna, is eaten raw in three stages of ripeness, green, reddish-purple, and yellow. Like the nopal, it's high in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties.
I used to think the fruit was bland and dry until one day a guy hiking in the preserve near my house offered a freshly cut prickly pear fruit. And then I finally understood why it's so beloved.
It's so juicy when ripe and fresh-picked. The seeds aren't that tasty, so most people pick them out. But the flesh for sure is super delicious.
3. Native Americans would fight each other for the fruit
Before and during the 16th-century Spanish conquest of what later became the United States, Native Americans in South Texas and northeastern Mexico would fight each other when harvesting the prickly pear fruit and cactus pads each autumn.
That's because they very few other food sources at certain times of the year. If the native peoples didn't have a cache of prickly pear fruit and cactus pads to eat, and if the deer they hunted couldn't be found, they'd starve.
4. You can read an excellent and completely true adventure story about the prickly pear fruit
For an excellent adventure of the Native Americans harvesting and fighting each other, as well as some classic action movie adventures that truly happened in real life, check out La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer who ended up getting lost and kidnapped by the native Karankawa, living with them for several years until happening upon other kidnapped Spaniards while harvesting prickly pear fruit.
He and his comrades escaped, but how and what happened next is almost unbelievable. His autobiography is incredible and you won't be able to put it down.
You can find it for free on Project Gutenberg in the anthology Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States, 1528-1543 at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42841. It's also available on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle ebook as the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca at https://www.amazon.com/Narrative-Cabeza-Vaca.
Like these cultural and historical stories? You can hear stories like this and so much more in our Spanish conversation classes. Contact me today to get started!
Jackie Donaldson is a language teacher and pronunciation specialist at Amidon Studios. She founded Amidon Studios in 2017 after managing a language institute in Lima, Peru. She's taught English and Spanish to students from all over the world while living in Peru, Mexico, and the U.S. When she's not working or studying, you'll find her gardening, playing with her cat Frankie, swimming, and exploring the globe.