While I have always taken unabashed pride in my palate’s curiosity for unknown flavours and its ability to suss out a dish's ingredients, I was recently left embarrassingly stumped. I found myself at a sit-down dinner at Mumbai’s Masque, when the restaurant’s head chef, Varun Totlani placed before me a rather nondescript soup bowl. Its contents? Well, that was a mystery for me to unravel.
The cool, green, intensely vegetal tasting liquid it held gave very little away. “That’s nagfani,” was all the chef announced to the table. Adding that the cold soup’s other components were an edible fern called akargoda and ambadi, also known as gongura or Roselle. The last two, I was familiar with. But nagfani still remained elusively unknown. The dish was conceptualised after the Masque team met Shailesh Awathe of Gujarat's OOO Farms, that sells indigenous produce.
‘Snaking’ its way in
Now, for the uninitiated like myself, nagfani (literally: cobra’s hood, given its shape) is the local name for Opuntia Ficus-indica. A type of edible cactus whose tender, spiky pads and pink-hued fruit are now being showcased by chefs.
Few years ago, chef Kunal Kapoor put up a video on his YouTube channel where he made a sabzi with nagfani. In it he points outs, the cactus plant and fruit have been used for various medicinal treatments in India. The video caption informs, “Also, many farmers in India grow them around their fields to naturally protect the crops. Cooking cactus is like cooking bhindi, quite easy and surprisingly very tasty. All you need to know is how to cut a cactus.” He slashes away the pesky spikes of the nagfani with a knife, chops it and rustles up a stir fry-like dish with loads of onions.
While recently shopping online for some elderflower syrup, the algorithm very cunningly threw up an advertisement for something that further augmented this new-fangled interest in edible cactus. Cactofresh is a syrup concentrate made from the fruit of Opuntia Ficus-indica. When made into a drink by adding water, it claims to “lower sugar and cholesterol levels, and blood pressure and is also very useful in treating anaemia.” More on that a little later.
But probably, many of us have already, rather unwittingly, consumed cacti and their derivatives in ways and forms least expected. Take for example the black seed-speckled, mild deliciousness that is the dragon fruit. Well, it comes from the pitahaya cactus.
Perhaps the most common edible cactus is the blue agave which is used to derive the hipster-chic sugar substitute of agave syrup. While its roasted, fermented heart produces tequila and its rougher, and more potent sibling creates mezcal—two of Mexico’s greatest gifts to the world of spirits.
Talking of Mexico, my initiation into the realm of edible cacti was one that involved a bit of hoodwinking on the part of my friend Juan-Carlos. On his insistence, I had ordered the innocuous sounding ‘tuna salad’ from a makeshift stall at Mercado de Xochimilco in Mexico. This market, or mercado in Spanish, is famous for its floating islands, and is a place to purchase just about anything particularly street food. Little did I know then that ‘tuna’ is what Mexicans call the bright pink prickly pear fruit of their local species of Opuntia Ficus-indica, whose spiky pads are known as nopal.
A cross between a strawberry and watermelon in taste, this is one delicacy that finds itself in everything from the aforementioned fruit salad to refreshing summer agua frescas (soft drinks) and a whole lot in between. The pads are used to make all sorts of cacti-redolent dishes like huaraches (stuffed nopales) and the tasty ensalada de nopalitos (nopal salad).
What takes this edible cacti to a whole other level is the fact that it is widely recognised as not just a health food, but also a highly sustainable and eco-friendly crop. In fact, experts from the United Nations are calling it a “miracle plant” in the face of the world’s changing climate. As this desert plant can grow almost anywhere, and is highly drought-resistant.
A recent report in the UK-based health information website Medical News Today says Opuntia Ficus-indica has been used to treat ailments like glaucoma, ulcers, liver conditions and wounds in the traditional medicine practices of Latin America. Backing this is a 2019 research, published on National Library of Medicine, on another variety of edible cactus, Opuntia dillenii, that notes its several health benefits including properties like antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, among others. Now, that’s something to chew on.