higo chumbo – prickly pear

A guide to food in Spain


prickly pear: higo chumbo (Opuntia ficus-indica)

Prickly pears were brought by the Spanish to Europe, possibly accompanying Christopher Columbus in his first return to Lisbon in 1493. The species was called ficus-indica in confusion with its supposed similarity to the Indian fig. Wikipedia notes

“The succulent, ever-fresh cladodes were certainly a novelty to late fifteenth century and later Europeans and were widely included in ships’ stores as insurance against scurvy. This practice is thought to have contributed greatly to the present naturalized range of Opuntia ficus-indica throughout arid and semi-arid habitats of the world. This widespread propagation (intended and unintended) throughout the Mediterranean obscured the geographic origins of this species; many early European botanists regarded this cactus to be native.”

Prickly pears are found all along the Spanish Mediterranean coast though their consumption is almost entirely reduced to local markets in the south, where thy are eaten as a dessert.

Update: See forum discussion on prickily pears “There seem to be an abundance of chumbos this year. I guess it has something to do with the wet winter.” Continue reading

Susie Bearder has written to me about prickly pear preparation in Murcia:

“First of all they must be treated with great respect – wear gloves when you pick them. They say it’s best when early morning dew is on them as it softens the spikes. Real peasant food to the extent that the green pads were eaten as a vegetable having been gently fried; the fruit is usually just peeled and added to a plate of mixed fruit. It was served up at a recent Spanish wedding dinner. But I always keep some in the fridge as they are best cold. I have been told they are nice mashed up with crushed ice. I think they are an acquired taste and I have now acquired a taste!”

Other Spanish names: penca, nopalera, higuera chumba, chumbera, higuera de Indias, higuera de pala.
Catalan: figuera de moro
Portuguese and Galician: figueira da índia, figueira-da-barbária

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