By Javier Cabral
When you’re at the ice cream shop and one of the flavours is tuna – don’t turn up your nose in disgust. It’s delicious! It’s also not fish flavoured.
In late summer in Mexico, prickly pear cactus fruits, or tunas, are everywhere—a refreshing snack eaten out of hand and a popular ingredient in candies, drinks, jams, and more. In Oaxaca, they spoon a dollop of pureed tuna son top of horchata, the milky rice-almond drink, but you can use it just about anywhere you’d use an apple—in salads, for example, or even in tarts.
The cactus grows wild all over Mexico; it’s also cultivated on plantations. Cactus pads, or nopales, are eaten year-round, but it’s only in summer that the fruits reach maturity. Varieties number in the hundreds, with flavour profiles ranging from creamy-sweet to brisk and tart. The dark nubs on the skin contain sharp spines, but these are easily removed by slicing off the ends of the fruit, making lengthwise incisions, and peeling back the rind to reveal the luscious flesh.
I have sampled many delicious varieties and here are a few you might find in the fruit and veggie markets or served up at roadside stands with the usual squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of chili y sel:
1. The Juana (sometimes called roja) has large, chewy seeds and tart, crimson flesh.
2. The roja pelona, kiwilike in flavour, is free of thorns, and while the seeds of all tunas are edible, the ones in this variety are smaller than most.
3. The widely available cristalina, also known as zarca, is juicy and crisp, with a sweet flavour like that of a white peach.
4. The naranjona has a honey-sweet, subtly spicy flavour reminiscent of a ripe persimmon›s.
5. The wild xoconostle has a sour and chewy, edible peel that is sometimes used in savoury stews.
6. The most widely available wild variety, the cardona has soft seeds and a flavour that›s both sweet and bitter, almost like a Luxardo cherry’s.
7. The cuerno de venado has a floral flavour; its high water content and small seed size make it a favourite snacking tuna.
8. The yellow platanera has a tropical flavour like that of bananas, the fruit from which it takes its name.