Discovering our food: Fichi d’India or Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

Hello my dear readers,

Are you ready to discover another ingredient that this beautiful world give us?

Today let’s discover a not so common fruit called Fichi D’India or Prickly Pear Cactus.


What are prickly pears

With the term prickly pear is called both the plant belonging to the cacti species and the fruit generated by it. The scientific name of the plant is Opuntia ficus-indica. Originally from Mexico and already traded in the times of the Aztecs, it then spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and in the temperate zones of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Prickly pears are so called because they were brought to the Old Continent by Christopher Columbus. It was 1493 1943 (oops, I’m bad at numbers, thank you Derrick). The famous navigator who landed in the Americas believed he had landed on the coasts of India instead. When he brought these fruits, which the Aztecs called nopals, at the royal court they were nicknamed fichi d’India (India fig) or prickly pears.


The plant

The prickly pear plant is composed of paddles, modified stems with a flattened and oval shape, about 30-40 cm long, which ensure photosynthesis and water reserve. The leaves of this plant, on the other hand, have a conical shape and are just a few millimeters long. On the paddles the flowers are born first and then give way to a fleshy berry with numerous seeds (up to 300 per unit): the prickly pear fruit.

The weight of this fruit can vary from 150 to 400 grams. The color of the fruit varies according to the variety: it is yellow-orange if it belongs to the sulfarin, purple-red in the sanguine variety, while it is white if it belongs to the muscaredda. Depending on the period in which they are born, the shape also varies. The first prickly pears are rounded, the later ones have an elongated and pedunculated shape.


The extraordinary properties, uses and calories of Fichi D’India or Prickly Pear Cactus

Especially those who live in Calabria or Sicily, areas where prickly pear cactus thrive, appreciate these fruits with extraordinary properties.

So let’s find out all their benefits, uses and the calories they bring to our body.

Surely you will have seen some prickly pear plants that closely resemble traditional cacti, with which they are actually botanically related. In the summer, these succulents produce orange-yellow fruits with a round or elongated shape, characterized by an exterior covered with thorns that make peeling prickly pears a bit tricky.

The fruit consists of a juicy and fleshy pulp very rich in water, sugars, vitamins and minerals and in which there are numerous seeds.


Properties of prickly pears

The properties of prickly pears are really many. These fruits are rich in vitamins, especially vitamin C and minerals including potassium and magnesium.

Rich in fiber, they fight constipation and keep blood sugar and overweight at bay: prickly pears therefore contain many fibers (5 grams per 100 grams of product) useful for counteracting the problem of constipation: in these cases we are talking about the seasonal fruit when it is ripe, the unripe fruit, on the other hand, has an astringent action, useful in case of diarrhea. Those who regularly consume these fruits, when they are in season, in fact notice a marked improvement in their intestinal functions in a short time.

Also thanks to the presence of fiber, prickly pears increase the sense of satiety, they are also useful for assimilating less fat and sugar, keeping blood sugar and overweight at bay. That’s why they are often recommended as a snack for those on a diet and want to lose the extra kilos.

But the advantages of eating prickly pears do not end here: these fruits promote diuresis, reducing the risk of kidney stones and in some cases even favoring the elimination of those already present; they are very rich in antioxidants, substances useful for our body to fight free radicals and cellular aging. 

They are also very thirst-quenching and represent an excellent source of energy for our body, which is why they are recommended in autumn to prepare the body for the cold season.

They protect the stomach and help fight cough: prickly pears, thanks to the mucilage, protect the gastric mucosa and are able to regenerate it in a short time. Furthermore, this fruit has proved to be an excellent remedy against cough, thanks to the flavonoids it contains. 

In these cases you can prepare a natural syrup: peel the prickly pears, cut the pulp into small pieces, cover them with brown sugar and leave to rest for 12 hours. After the necessary time, cook everything in a pot until the pulp melts and drink hot.

Moreover, according to recent studies, the flavonoids contained in prickly pears are also useful for  protecting the brain and strengthening memory. Their effects on important degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are still being studied.


Uses of prickly pears

Not everyone knows that the edible parts of the prickly pear plant are actually three: the paddles (which can be cooked like a common vegetable), the flower petals (which can be mixed with the ingredients of a salad), and the fruits. The paddles have more or less the same consistency as the snow peas, just cut them into strips and boil them until they soften. However, they can also be consumed grilled.

Difficult to handle, but very tasty to eat the prickly pears, are delicious fruits widespread on Southern Italian tables but still too little used in mainstream cuisine. Perhaps the fault of its hard skin and the small thorns that surround it. But a little attention and creativity is enough to obtain exotic and very tasty results from this fruit that “tastes of sun”. 

How to recognize when they are ripe

When buying prickly pears, choose those with a red-orange skin. Inside the pulp will be ruby or dark purple: they are the best fruits, the sweetest ones.

Here’s how to clean and eat prickly pears

How to peel and remove the thorns from prickly pears

Once you have bought the prickly pears, to eat the sweet fruit you will need to remove the thorns and peel them. Get a colander and put them under running cold water, moving them a little. Only after this it’s possible to touch them with your hands. If you are concerned that any spines that survived the running water will get into your hands, use gloves. To peel it, on the other hand, you just need to hold the fruit with a fork by cutting the two ends, carving it for the length and rolling the pulp with the help of the fork until it is free from the peel.

A good video that shows how to harvest and peel a Fichi d’India fresh from the plant without getting hurt

How to eat prickly pears

Once cleaned, the prickly pear pulp can be cut and eaten piece by piece with a fork, or served on a toothpick. The seeds can be ingested but should not be bitten as they are very hard. In case of discomfort, you can even spit them out.

How do they taste

Prickly pears are juicy and rich in seeds, with a sweet and slightly acidic taste.

Many say that Fichi d’India are sweet but not too sweet. Some describe the flavor like a fig crossed with a plum.

Ideas for recipes with prickly pears

Natural prickly pears are a perfect ingredient to embellish a fresh salad of oranges, olives and cheese, or to prepare a sweet fruit salad to be served at the end of a meal or as an afternoon snack. But prickly pears are an ingredient to indulge even in savoury dishes. For example, the skins can become chips. Deprived of the thrusts and cut into strips, you can bread them with egg and breadcrumbs and fry them. A piece of the fruit wrapped in a slice of speck can become a delicious finger food with an exotic flavor. Prickly pear juice can also be used to prepare prickly pear risotto.

Also excellent is the gel extracted from the paddles to be used not only for internal use but also to be applied to the skin as if it were a real natural cosmetic seen as healing and disinfectant. Extracts of prickly pears are also used to enrich creams and shampoos as they seem to contribute to greater hair growth.

How to store prickly pears

Once you have cleaned the prickly pears, you can choose to store them in a plastic or stainless steel container, covering them with a cloth soaked in cold water and well wrung out. Store them in the fridge: stored in this way they can last at least 3-4 days. You can also store them in a vacuum bag or choose to wrap each individual fruit in cling film but keep them always in the fridge.

In some regions of Southern Italy it is also customary to preserve prickly pears by drying them in the sun. After cutting them into thick slices, sprinkle each piece with a nice pinch of brown sugar and wait for them to dry, turning them every day first on one side and then on the other. 

Another method of preserving prickly pears is linked to the world of jams and marmalades. Buying seasonal fruits, prepare some prickly pear mustard to spread on ricotta or as an accompaniment to cheeses.


Calories and nutritional values of prickly pears

Prickly pears are low-calorie fruits, 100 grams in fact bring about 55 calories to our body. However, it must be considered that a single fruit weighs around 200-300 grams, reaching 400 grams only in rare cases.


Contraindications

It is not recommended to consume prickly pears for those suffering from diverticula, the small seeds of which these fruits are composed, in fact, could go to settle in the intestinal loops creating inflammation and aggravating any symptoms already present.

It is also better not to exceed the consumption of these fruits in order not to have unwanted gastrointestinal side effects.

Have you every tried a prickly pear?

So far I did not but I’ll go and search for it for sure πŸ˜‰

Thank you all for reading.

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Bye bye for now!

Stay safe!

Popsicle Society
Popsicle Society

I love traveling, cooking and enjoying this beautiful world.Β 
I’m a life lover! Simple as that!

40 thoughts

  1. These do not grow much here but I think I have seen these in some places.
    One observation: In a place you have mentioned a year : 1943. I think it could be 1543 or 1643 because it refers to Christopher Columbus.

  2. Where did you get this 😍 You triggered my childhood memories except the fruit πŸ€” in my native, when I was a kid we use to see lot of such but no one ever gave me one to taste or have I ever tasted and forgotton πŸ˜’ maybe that would have happened but it’s a beautiful fruit I never picked for its sharp thingy ,😁 good discovery Ribana.. Great work… Been missing your post for some time. Glad to have the time to readβœ¨πŸ€—Have a wonderful Wednesday πŸŽ‰

      1. yes, a little frightening with its look. Must try to taste it, when I see next time. Tq Ribana 😍πŸ₯°βœ¨

  3. Oh my god I haven’t seen it anywhere before. I didn’t even know cactus makes edible fruits! And it kind of get the wrong name because of Columbus πŸ˜‚
    I’m saving this post. So exciting. Now I really wish to bump into it.

    1. Yes, not very common 😁 Columbus did not get everything right eh…πŸ€ͺ
      I’m trying to find it too but I guess will be more easier to bump into it when I go back home πŸ€ͺ when that will be πŸ€”
      Thank you dear Jess πŸ€—πŸ’•

  4. I have heard of these before but never knew anything about it. I have never seen it around here either, I doubt it would make it up this way. Great post about it Ribana! Have a wonderful day!πŸ˜ΊπŸ˜€πŸŒž

    1. Thank you Steve! Yes, I guess are not easy to find…even here in Singapore cannot find it…πŸ€ͺ I guess I’ll wait until I’ll go back home to Italy πŸ˜†
      Have a great evening Steve! πŸ˜‰πŸ˜»

      1. Thanks Ribana, Muffin and I are sitting together with a strong north wind blowing and shaking the apartment! It’s cold out there! Have a great day Ribana!πŸ˜€πŸ˜ΊπŸŒžπŸ˜»

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