Foods of Argentina: Higos de Tuna

At a recent Sunday lunch with Daniel's family, I excused myself briefly from the table after we finished our pasta, and when I returned I saw that Daniel's stepdad Tomás and great-aunt Rosa were eating some unfamiliar, fuchsia-colored fruit. The two of them explained that they were sampling a fruit known as higo de tuna, and Tomás asked me if I'd like to try one. Without hesitation, I replied, "Of course," and I reached toward the bowl to grab one of the innocuous-looking ovals. Rosa and Tomás practically leapt out of their chairs as they both screamed in unison, "NO, DON'T TOUCH THEM!"

After the heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sweating eased up, I found out just why they both went berserk. Unbeknownst to me, the exterior of the higo de tuna is covered in hairlike spines called glochids that become lodged in the skin and produce an intense burning sensation.

I imagine that the spikes on fruit purchased at a greengrocer or supermarket have already been removed; however, since Tomás gathered these from a cactus in the middle of a field somewhere, they still had their full complement of tiny daggers. I actually did get a pair of spines stuck in my fingers before I jerked my hand back from the bowl, but the discomfort I experienced was minimal. I think the fright that Rosa and Tomás gave me inflicted ten times more damage than those two little barbs, which I successfully removed with tweezers.

Tomás pierced an higo de tuna with a fork and showed me how to peel it, cutting through the fruit lengthwise and peeling away the skin to reveal deep pink flesh and hard black seeds the size of peppercorns. The flavor reminded me of kiwi fruit with a hint of melon.

Opuntia ficus indica - Indian Fig - Tuna - Higo Chumbo by Carlos Lorenzo on Flickr [used under Creative Commons License] [Fresh higos de tuna or prickly pear fruit]

Higos de tuna (also known in Spanish as tunas, chumbos or higos chumbos and in English as cactus fruits, cactus figs, or Indian figs) are the fruits of the prickly pear cactus, which grows wild in the U.S., Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Although originally from the Americas, the cacti were carried to Europe by the Spanish explorers, where they are now found in Spain, Italy, Greece and even North Africa.

The fruit of the prickly pear cactus can be peeled and eaten as is or used to make jelly. The fruit may also be boiled down into a thick syrup known as arrope de tuna, which is sometimes served with goat cheese in Argentina's northwestern provinces. Higos de tuna boast a high nutritional value, and according to traditional wisdom, eating them helps with various gastrointestinal maladies. Although prickly pear cacti grow in abundance in many parts of Argentina, consumption of the fruit tends to be rather low.

Prickly Pear Fruit, So Ripe! by cobalt123 on Flickr [used under Creative Commons License][The tuna or prickly pear cactus with fruit]

If you're interested in sampling all things tuna, mark your calendars for the Festival Nacional de la Tuna, which takes place in the town of Icaño in the northwestern province of Catamarca in late February. You can also get your tuna fix at the Festival del Arrope de Tuna in Infanzón, also in Catamarca. [In case you haven't noticed, the Argentines will use almost any excuse to party – yes, even prickly pear syrup.]

Have you ever tried an higo de tuna?

[Photo credits: Carlos Lorenzo and cobalt123]

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