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What is Prickly Pear? How to Eat It, Its Flavor, Recipes & Drink Ideas

Colorful juicy prickly pear fruit on a white plate and a white wooden background. Edible cactus on the table, prickly pear apples

What is Prickly Pear? How to Eat It, Its Flavor, Recipes & Drink Ideas

Whether you refer to it as sabra, tuna, paddle cactus, Indian fig, mission cactus, cactus pear, or another local term, the prickly pear by any other name remains a prickly pear. But what is it? We’re exploring more about this fascinating fruit, how it’s used, its health benefits, and beyond. We’ve even included some great recipes and drink ideas, in case you’re feeling inspired!

Prickly pears, exotic cactus fruits cut in halves, top view.
What is a prickly pear, and what is used for? Consider us intrigued. After all, check out that beautiful ruby-red interior! Image: Erhan Inga, Shutterstock

©Erhan Inga/Shutterstock.com

What is Prickly Pear, and Where Does it Come From?

Though it may not be the first visual that comes to mind when you try to picture it, prickly pear is actually a type of sweet, edible cactus fruit. The fruit (also called “tuna”) sprouts from the top of nopales, which are the flatter part of the cactus, and can range in color — from green and yellow to pink, red, or even purple. However, the entire plant itself is often called a prickly pear, which can bring about some confusion when you're looking into its culinary uses. Oval in shape, the cactus's leaves resemble paddles — hence, several of its monikers. And, as one might surmise, it has prickly skin as the name suggests. In fact, its body is covered in hair-like spines. (Although the spines aren't poisonous, it's certainly worth gloving up before you work with them!)

The prickly pear-bearing cacti can be found throughout the United States, and, like most species of cactus, it is native to The Americas. With that said, you can find it around the globe, as it has been introduced to many other areas of the world. In particular, Mexico is a prime spot for finding prickly pear, and nopales are frequently used in Mexican cuisine.

Prickly pear cactus close up with fruit in red color, cactus spines.
The flat, paddle-like leaves of the cactus are called nopales, and the prickly pear is the fruit offshoot. Image: fischers, Shutterstock

©fischers/Shutterstock.com

What Does Prickly Pear Taste Like, and How Do You Eat It?

A longstanding staple in Mexican cuisine, the prickly pear is highly versatile. In fact, with its slightly tart and citrus-like flavor, it is used in a wide variety of dishes and products — from sweet jams to savory tacos. The prickly pear is also crunchy, which lends it to a few unexpected culinary uses, such as the topping for a salad. With that said, the prickly pear’s texture can sometimes be slimy, depending on how you choose to prepare it.

Somewhat surprisingly, the prickly pear’s flavor has been compared to that of watermelon. It is quite juicy with seeds and can even be eaten raw. But most often, you'll find it boiled down into syrups, candy, and jellies, or cooked into dishes such as soups.

Interestingly, the prickly pear is rich in fiber and antioxidants, so many experts suggest it helps with managing blood sugar, promoting weight loss, and encouraging liver health. Thanks to magnesium, potassium, and calcium, the prickly pear is also thought to help maintain low blood pressure. Believe it or not, they are even used in shampoos and conditioners, as they help to achieve shiny hair! The health benefits of prickly pears actually date back much further than recent studies, however. They have long been used in Mexican folk medicine, treating conditions such as ulcers, liver conditions, and more.

Colorful juicy prickly pear fruit on a white plate and a white wooden background. Edible cactus on the table, prickly pear apples
The prickly pear's vibrant color is certainly alluring … despite that prickly skin! Image: Simol1407, Shutterstock

©Simol1407/Shutterstock.com

Important Takeaways:

  • The prickly pear has been known to go by many different names, but it all leads to the colorful fruit of a cactus.
  • The prickly pear is a longstanding staple in Mexican cuisine and highly versatile, used in both sweet and savory dishes. It can even be eaten raw!
  • The prickly pear is native to The Americas but can be found across the globe — particularly in Mexico, where it is a common ingredient in local cuisine.
  • The prickly pear's health benefits are thought to include shiny hair, managing blood sugar levels, promoting liver health, maintaining blood pressure, and even aiding in weight loss.
Close up photo with shallow depth of field of a cut prickly pear fruit. Half is intact and half is chopped up on a stripped cutting board with silverware next to it. Focus on the big half.
What a beauty! Image: Tunde Gaspar, Shutterstock

©Tunde Gaspar/Shutterstock.com

Delicious Prickly Pear Recipes to Try

Roast Pork Loin with Prickly Pear Glaze

Vibrant in color, this beautiful glaze is the perfect accompaniment for pork loin, adding a sweet coating to the savory protein. Just make sure you handle the prickly pears with care as you peel them for your sauce. They truly are prickly!

Prickly Pear Barbecue Sauce

This particular recipe involves generously coating doves with prickly pear barbecue sauce. While doves may not be in most of our cooking repertoires, the sauce is the key here, and it easily lends itself to other proteins such as chicken, quail, and cornish game hen. The recipe even calls for a few other authentic Mexican ingredients that top our favorites list — agave and mezcal.

Prickly Pear Salad Dressing

You can certainly top your salad with raw prickly pear, but it's also ideal to infuse into salad dressings! This sweet and tangy vinaigrette is the perfect example.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/60446819992964324/

Prickly Pear Lemon Bars

If you're searching for a Southwest-themed dessert (or simply one that tastes as wonderful as it looks), these prickly pear lemon bars are worth a try. A delicious homemade crust is covered in prickly pear-infused custard and then topped with a dusting of confectioner's sugar.

Prickly Pear Drink Ideas

There are a plethora of fruit-forward (and mighty delicious) prickly pear beverage recipes out there! From sparkling lemonade to a margarita, we snagged a few to inspire you.

Prickly pear with cactus fruit
Prickly pear syrup lends itself to so many mocktail and cocktail options. And it makes them look festive, too! Image: Nastassia Diler, Shutterstock

©Nastassia Diler/Shutterstock.com

Sparkling Prickly Pear Juice Lemonade

This non-alcoholic beverage is fun, festive, and perfect for the whole family. It's also vegan, gluten-free, and only requires three ingredients apart from the prickly pear syrup.

Prickly Pear Spritz

Spritz fans, rejoice. With lime juice, prosecco, and tequila, this refreshing cocktail is perfect for summer days spent on the patio or out by the pool.

Prickly Pear Margarita

What could possibly pair better with prickly pear than tequila? This might be a match made in heaven.

Prickly Pear Smoothie

If you're a smoothie lover, this is an easy way to incorporate prickly pear into your recipe roster. Combined with other tropical flavors such as banana and pineapple, this prickly pear smoothie offers up a vivid glass with health benefits and an exotic twist.

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