Don't Be Afraid of the Prickly Pear

During my first few weeks living in Africa a decade and a half ago, pretty much all the food was new: the spongy fermented flatbread called injera, the fiery-hot spice mix called berbere, and the ubiquitous vegetarian chickpea paste called shero. Even some of the fruit was new, as I learned when I tasted my first bite of beles, or cactus fruit. Now to inhabitants of the American southwest, Mexico, or Central America, cactus fruit—sometimes called prickly pear or cactus pear—is not a novelty, but to this New Yorker, it was a sight to behold. With its scary spindles and jet black seeds, it looked like a foreboding porcupine, and anyone who has ever reached out unawares would learn quickly that the uninitiated need to proceed with caution.

In Eritrea, children would stand in the marketplace, knives in hand, offering to handle and peel the fruit for those who wanted to quench their thirst without puncturing their skin. A natural refresher, cactus fruit smells a little like a melon but its flavor and texture are quite watery—which is terrific on a hot desert day. While you may not find prickly pears in markets this time of year, you may find the leaves, called nopales. This lovely reminiscence in the San Francisco Chronicle offers recipes for roasting, stewing, and even picking cactus leaves.

Of course, once you become an expert with cactus leaves, you can move on to the fruit the next time you come across it. Just remember three tiny, but vitally important words: handle with care.

Have you ever tried a prickly pear? Chime in below!

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Cheryl Sternman Rule is a widely-published food writer and the voice behind the blog 5 Second Rule. Read all of Cheryl's iVillage posts here.

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