Cactus pear can also be vegetable staple

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SABRINA DEAN

Most of us know the cactus pear as a prickly pear – a fruit with loads of thorns that grows on a cactus type plant with loads of thorns.

However, when one talks about the spineless cactus pear, it refers to a cultivar with virtually no thorns and people in Mexico have long used the entire plant, from the fruit to the cladodes (stems resembling leaves), as a staple food.

This is according to Maryna de Wit of the department of microbial, biochemical and food biotechnology at the University of the Free State (UFS), who, along with researchers from other departments, is on a mission to tell South Africans about the benefits of growing and producing spineless cactus pear for human consumption.

"The nutritional value of the fruit compares very favourably to other fruit," she says, adding that it is packed with vitamin C, antioxidants and phenolic substances.

But much more than just the fruit can be utilised. De Wit says one can use the flowers for a tea with medicinal properties, you can press oil from the seeds, you can boil, stir-fry or deep-fry the cladodes, grind up older dried leaves to create a flour for baking, or use it in a myriad other ways.

Alba du Toit, a food sciences PhD student and consumer science lecturer, says selection is crucial if you want to cook with the cladodes. She says you need to look for fresh young cladodes, preferably not bigger than about the size of your hand and not too thick.

"It is very important to look for the thinnest leaves you can find, because older, thicker ones get too slimy and it is important to harvest in the daytime because it needs at least two hours of sunshine to balance acidity levels," she says.
To prepare, you use a sharp knife to gently slice away the glochids – or nobs where the thorns are – and cut off the outer edge. Don’t peel, otherwise you are just left with slime. The fresh ‘vegetable’ can now be boiled, stir-fried, added to a tomato-based braai relish or even used in a salad.

The UFS has also patented a method to extract mucilage from fresh cladodes to create gelling, emulsifier or fat replacement agents found in foods such as mayonnaise, marshmallows and other candy.

For further information on utilising cactus pear for human consumption, contact De Wit on 051-401-3261 or email dewitm@ufs.ac.za.

sabrina@centralmediagroup.co.za