Tuna. Numerous people are staunch fans of tuna. There are multiple recipes that include this main ingredient, each with its own distinctive taste. Grilled over a smoldering barbeque, pan-seared Ahi, tossed with avocado for a crisp salad or simply swirled with mayo and veggies for a modest meal. Imagine my surprise finding a sign for “Tuna” in the produce section of the Ley’s grocery store in San Carlos. Tuna, with the fruits and vegetables? Odd? Not in Mexico. During the late summer months, tuna nestled between the pineapple and coconut is an absolute find.
The tuna fruit is a product of the flat paddled prickly pear cactus. It ripens to perfection in late summer and is only available for a few months each year. Its limited availability makes it a special treat. Year round the paddles of this cactus known as nopales are readily used in Mexican recipes ranging from soups to salsas and egg dishes to tacos. The nopales add a crunchy, lemony citrus type flavor to the dishes. However, preparation of these meals can require patience and gloves. The prickly pear cactus paddles are covered with long, sharp spines which must first be cut away in order to include them in recipes. In the wild these spines protect the plant from being bitten by critters and thus destroying the plant’s much needed water supply. Luckily, nopales are often sold by the bag already “de-thorned” as well as sliced and diced and ready for immediate use. While the tuna fruit does not have the same long, sharp spines, they are covered with their own version of defense. From the small dark spots found on the fruit’s peeling emerge tiny, clear, hairy nettles. So, when selecting a tuna fruit at the market do not just reach out and grab one or you will run the risk of receiving a hand full of itch along with the fruit.
The market near me had only one type of tuna but after some quick research I discovered there are multiple types of this fruit. Juanas have a red, tart fruit and soft chewy seeds. While the sour wild xoconostle posses an edible covering. The yellow plataneras have a flavor similar to bananas plátanos hince their name. There is even one species of tuna fruit that boasts a floral flavor…hmmmm, not interested. Based on this limited research, I believe the species I tried is the cristalina tuna fruit. This version claims to have a juicy, crisp flavor. This was accurate as was the warning notice that tuna fruit houses extremely hard, small seeds. While perfectly edible, similar to pomegranate seeds, an unknowing chomp into the tuna’s succulent, light green pulp could easily send one to the dentist. Not something I enjoy in the states, let alone in a location where details could be easily lost in translation.
But, I am REALLY getting ahead of myself because before enjoying the flavorful tuna fruit one must first progress through the process of preparing it for consumption. This undertaking goes a little like this…Step one: access tools including a plate, fork and butter knife, Step two: stab the tuna in the side with a fork while not actually touching the fruit with your hand (a step which may require minimal chasing of the fruit around the plate), Step three: cut off both ends of the fruit with the knife, (the fruit is very soft therefore limited pressure and experience are needed) Step four: slice the rind of the fruit from top to bottom, Step five: with the knife separate the peel from the flesh of the fruit gently rolling it with the assistance of the fork, (you are almost there so do not get over excited and roll the fruit off the plate and onto the floor as this would cause a loss of the fruit… unless you’re into the “5-second rule”) and finally, Step six: discard peel and slice the fruit into small pieces. Once these steps are complete the delicious rico tuna fruit is ready to be eaten. The multiple steps that preceded the actual enjoyment of this “limited access treat” made me wonder if it was really worth the effort. Oddly enough I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite children’s novels, The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. In the scene an extremely particular, elderly woman tells one of the characters, “You must think of those six steps not as preparation for the beginning but as the beginning itself.” Quite possibly in today’s rush we become so focused on the end result we forget to enjoy the adventure of the journey. Perhaps this is even true when prepping a tuna.
With all of this effort, some may ponder, why anyone would want to try this particular produce with so many “pop in your mouth” options? Other than because it’s unique and limited, tuna fruit is truly delightful. If the seeds are an issue, tuna fruit can be consumed as a juice with the pesky seeds strained away. Many seasonal recipes include this prickly pear cactus treasure. Sweet chunks are added to salads and it is cooked down into jams and jellies. It is strained to create the refreshing drink, agua fresca, meaning fresh water or cool water, by combining the fruit’s juice, cold water and perhaps a small bit of sugar depending on the tartness of the fruit. This light drink is a cool, hydrating treat in the summer heat. Vendors on bikes and street corners sell many flavors of agua fresca throughout the San Carlos area.
If the delicious taste doesn’t sell you on giving tuna fruit a try, maybe the health benefits will provide a tiny nudge. One tuna fruit provides vitamins C, K and B-6 along with small amounts of potassium, calcium, and iron. It is also high in fiber and loaded with antioxidants. The elusive tuna fruit might not be an official superfood but these odd looking spiky little nuggets have a great deal to offer. So, the next time you’re shopping for produce take a closer look at the option and try the adventure of the tuna fruit. You’ll be glad you did.
August 28, 2019
“U Can’t Touch This.”– MC Hammer