Why you should care
Its sweetness is worth the potential pitfalls of trying to eat it.
Tuna — the fruit, not the fish — is not for the weak. Flanked by a vibrant fragile flower and a thorny green cactus pad, it’s a thing of extremes from birth. But you’ll find the goods are worth the fight, and may even be sweeter for the sweat you spill approaching them.
Sometimes known as the “prickly pear” fruit, the tuna grows most abundantly in Mexico and the Southwest U.S., but you can also find it in parts of Europe and Africa. The word “tuna” comes from the Taíno language, which was spoken in the Caribbean during pre-Columbian times. There are many different varieties, with shades ranging from fuchsia to blood-orange or pale green — but the most common is the cristalina, also known as the zarca.
Though most of the cristalina tuna’s hide is smooth as a cucumber, it’s dotted with gray-brown bunches of tiny thorns, skinny and barely visible. Chances are, your grocer has been kind enough to remove most of these for you, but you’re still very likely to be stuck with one. And their sting is brutal.
But even with that deliciousness cradled in your mouth, the challenge isn’t over.
Exhuming the fruit is a precise business. First cut off just under an inch of the pointy end and as little as you can of the flat end. Make one long incision, about a quarter-inch deep, lengthwise. Then dive your thumb into this crack, peeling back the fruit’s pernicious jacket to reveal your palm-size green pearl of tuna. Minimalists spread that jacket out and use it as a plate. Experts less squeamish about filling their nails with slimy green stuff can pull the whole hide off in one piece without touching a knife.
The cristalina tuna’s sweetness is light, with a texture that bridges melon and grape. But even with that deliciousness cradled in your mouth, the challenge isn’t over: Dozens of seeds sprinkle the fruit with a randomness that makes them impossible to avoid. It takes a good 15 seconds to grind these tricky kernels down to digestible belly-fodder. And their sandy texture scratches your throat like fingernails on a back. Doesn’t sound like your thing? You can also suck the seeds clean and spit them out.
Carlos Gaytan, owner and chef of Chicago’s Mexique, brought his love of the tuna fruit from Mexico when he moved to Chicago in 1991 at age 20. At his Michelin-starred French-Mexican fusion restaurant, he uses it “in everything from chilled soups to ceviches, marmalades and desserts.” He explains that the flavor is “very special [because it’s] earthy but sweet.” For his tuna-based panna cotta ($10), he carefully spills a mixture of nitrogen liquid over a perfectly manicured gelatin stained pink with red tuna, enveloping the plate in smoke.
Your mouth isn’t the only part of your body that’ll be pleased by tuna. High in vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber and magnesium (one fruit contains 22 percent of your recommended daily intake), it’s used holistically to treat everything from diabetes to external burns.
In the U.S., Gaytan says you can find the tuna fruit in any Mexican food market. But the season is short: If it’s not late summer or early fall, you’ll have to settle for a puree of the stuff. So get thee going in search of this glorious green delight!