Have you ever dined on the demon plant? O. Henry called cactus the “demon plant,” since it appears to live without soil or rain in an unforgiving desert landscape. He wasn’t thinking about the cactus used for backpacks, rope, nets, armoires and doors, not to mention margaritas and salad dressing. While some New Yorkers like myself may think of cactus as a user-friendly, spiny houseplant in a variety of shapes, it is also a healthy food source. We are not talking about the intoxicants found in mescal and tequila (from agave). These hallucinogenic substances come from succulents, which are not technically part of the cactus family. Cactus 101: All cacti are succulents; not all succulents are cacti.
There are thousands of species of cacti; the better-known edible types include saguaro fruits, cholla buds, and the sweet prickly pear fruits and pads (nopales). Eating cactus is both a disappearing tradition—as in the cholla buds, containing five times as much calcium as milk, with only a two-week picking season before they flower—and a re-emerging tradition of eating prickly pears, found today in salads, salsa, empanadas, jams, muffins, pies, and exotic drinks.
On a recent trip to the Sonoran desert in Arizona, I discovered unlikely cactus pairings in dishes such as waffles with prickly pear sauce, spicy tuna sushi rolls stuffed with prickly pear, roasted cactus with Chicken BBQ, cactus salsa, and a mixed green salad with pepitas and cactus vinaigrette. After dining on a tasty cactus salad, I strolled through the Phoenician Resort’s impressive cactus garden in Scottsdale, Arizona, which contains plants from Brazil, Argentina, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, and the Galapagos Islands-, including 400 and 500-year-old saguaros. (It takes a saguaro 100 years to grow its first arm, and sagging arms indicate old age.)
Cactus trivia: Arizona’s state flower is the saguaro blossom. One needle of the Grandfather or “Teddy Bear Cholla” can pierce through three pairs of jeans. Native Americans used saguaro needles to create bows and arrows. The Tohono O’odham (“the desert people”) tribe made wine from the saguaro for a ceremony celebrating successful crops and honoring Mother Nature. The harvesting of the saguaro fruit in June marked the start of their calendar year, and the wine ceremony was important for bringing rain to the desert.
I’m overwhelmed with the colorful, descriptive names: blue cactus, soap plant, grizzly bear, rainbow cactus, and Mexican fence pole, to name a few. One of the most versatile forms of cacti is known to us as prickly pear, though the English call it Indian fig, French refer to it as Barbary fig, and for Greeks it is the “fig of the foreigner.” (There is no actual relationship to the fig.) In Italy it is “the poor man’s bread,” and one Ethiopian dialect has 48 words for prickly pear, including translations such as “cactus loved by dogs and not consumed by humans” and “cactus inhabited by snakes.”
Medicinal uses of prickly pear include a burn ointment (from an ancient Aztec herbal book), a remedy to reduce itching during measles in Sicily, and mosquito repellent in Central Africa. The highly fibrous prickly pear pads also help regulate blood glucose levels, and are used as a diabetes treatment in Mexico. Prickly pear is also the main ingredient in an inviting bubble bath and a fragrant shampoo. Prickly pear is a fruit and a vegetable, depending on which part of the plant you taste. While the fruit yields sweet syrup, the Mexicans eat the “pads” as a common vegetable, known as nopales (or nopalitas).
To prepare the pads: clean (removing the spines by scraping), trim edges, rinse, boil or stir-fry, and cut it into strips. The nopales may be a tasty ingredient in an omelet, mixed with other vegetables in a tomato-based casserole, or in a delicious cactus salad. The Rosa Mexicana restaurant in New York City offers cactus in a dish with peppers, onions, and