Tunas: how to eat cactus like a Chilean

Considered a weed in some parts of the world, ‘tuna’ or prickly pear is a summer delicacy in Chile. So just how do you eat it, without getting a mouthful of spines

At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of square miles of farmland in Australia was rendered “unproductive” due to an outbreak of cacti of the Opuntia genus.

Farmers down under introduced a moth, appropriately named Cactoblastis, whose larvae eat the plant, and the species wiped out the Opuntia completely. Farmers celebrated. Biologists patted themselves on the back. Chileans wept.

Because in Chile, as in many other Latin American countries, the fruit of the Opuntia cactus is considered a delicacy.

Known as prickly pear in English and “tuna” in Chile, the fruit is a succulent summer treat with a taste that is part kiwi, part honeydew melon. But at the end of the day, the tuna is one of those completely unique fruits that you have to try while in Chile.

The fruit is harvested from the beginning of the year until around April, and at the height of the season it floods markets around the country. You’ll find them in most supermarkets, but the best place to get them is in the street markets, whose fresh produce at cheap prices are one of the real privileges of living in Chile.

While getting hold of it is pretty easy, the fruit presents some difficulties to uninitiated foreigners: most obviously, a skin full of spines.

Firstly, let’s be clear about one thing: don’t ever touch the skin of the fruit. Even if your vendor picks it up with his or hers, their hardened mitts have been handling tunas so long that they are part cactus themselves. Yours are not. Use a bag.

To peel the fruit, use a chopping board, fork and sharp knife. Pierce the fruit in the middle with the fork to hold it in place, then slice off both ends. From there, you can either cut off the skin with a knife, as demonstrated in the video above, or cut a line through the skin from top to bottom and peel it off.

Once you’ve freed the tuna from its prickles, you’ll be presented with a new conundrum: seeds. Tunas are really, really full of seeds.

Practiced tuna eaters develop the ability to throw back the fruit, seeds and all, but they can be a real turn-off for first timers. One way to appreciate the taste of the fruit without the seeds is to make tuna juice and strain them out. Served fresh and cold, this is one of the most refreshing drinks that you can have a hot summer day.