When we say "cactus" we typically think of the prickly ornamental or desert plants which would be the last thing we will put on our dinner table. But in many parts of the world, cactus fruits are eaten, and even one species leaves are also edible.
Prickly pears are fruits of a genus of the fruit-producing cactus known as opuntia or paddle cactus. Like all cactus species, the plants are native to the Western hemisphere but have been brought to different parts of the world. Today, they abound in Mexico, the Western United States, the Mediterranean region, Southern Europe and parts of Asia. In the late 1800’s, prickly pears were introduced in Australia where it caused major environmental damage such as soil erosion.
The prickly pear fruits are also called cactus fruit, cactus fig and tuna. The Indian Fig Opuntia is the most commonly used in culinary preparations. They are made into candies, juices, jams, jellies, soufflés, and muffins. The taste of the prickly pear juice is said to be sweet and delicious, described as a cross between bubblegum and watermelon.
The young pads or leaves called nopales of most species are also edible and is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine and is said to taste like green beans.
Also called Strawberry pear, pitaya or pitahaya, the dragon fruit is the fruit of the cactus species Hylocereus more commonly known as sweet pitaya. This cactus plant is native to Mexico and Central and South America but is now cultivated in Australia and several Asian countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.
There are three kinds of dragon fruit, the most commonly seen are the pink skinned with white flesh (red pitaya), the pink skinned with red flesh (Costa rica pitaya), and the golden yellow skinned with white flesh (yellow pitaya). All three can be up to six inches long, with leathery, slightly leafy skins.
Most people who have tried the dragon fruit were disappointed of its taste considering its interesting, exotic appearance. The flavor is described as bland to mildly sweet with a texture reminiscent to the kiwifruit. Some have also found that it has a palate cleansing effect.
Organ Pipe Cactus Fruit and Peruvian Apple Cactus Fruit
The fruit of the organ pipe cactus which is also edible and looks similar to the dragon fruit is known as sour pitaya. They are common in the dry regions of the Americas. They are juicier, more sour and have stronger taste compared to the dragon fruit.
The Peruvian apple cactus fruit (pictured above) is another cactus fruit referred to as pitahaya dulce or sweet pitahaya in its native countries. Its flavor is said to be a bit like watermelon.
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