With its sharp spine and intimidating name, prickly pear cactus is not a common ingredient in the U.S. But maybe it should be.

Nopalitos, which are the cactus paddles, and tunas, which are the pears from the cactus, are really popular in Mexico. And other countries aren't far behind. Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa, Peru, Argentina and Chile all have significant acreage devoted to nopales, according to the United Nations. Southern Italians are mad for cactus fruit -- Sicilians have grown them for years. They are second only to Mexico in cactus fruit production.

Sam Brasch, a contributing writer at Modern Farmer, is the author of "A Prickly Question: Could Cactus Be the Next Kale?"

Pati Jinich: How did you run into the prickly pear cactus?

Sam Brasch Sam Brasch

Sam Brasch: We almost literally ran into the prickly pear cactus on a bike ride in Denver where I live. We were biking out to a reservoir, and there was a patch by the side of the trail. A number of people were picking the pears off the top of those cactuses, so we stopped and asked to see what they were doing.

They let us pick some with them, then we brought them home and tried to eat the pears. We didn't really succeed. We got pricked pretty badly, but managed to get a little taste of the fruit.

PJ: You had a taste of the fruit that Mexicans call tunas. What did it taste like?

SB: It's kind of like kiwi, but with harder, bigger seeds in it.

PJ: Have you tasted the cactus part of the nopalitos or did you just taste the fruit?

SB: I have. I actually made a point of buying some of the nopalitos, the paddles, and cooking them with some of my friends. We made nopalitos tacos. It's great -- it was like a mixture between string beans and okra.

I had read in researching the article that the main worry with the paddles is that they can end up being a little bit slimy. We boiled them before we sautéed them with all the other good stuff that went into tacos, and that really took care of it. By the end of it the texture was maybe a little bit more like green beans, but it had a stronger taste to it that I really liked.

PJ: That's a nice trick. They have such a nice bite.

SB: They do. It's one of those foods where you just have to wonder why it hasn't caught on more. They come from the grocery store with the spine still attached. Much of our worry and preparation was getting the spines off of it. I did get pricked a little bit, but once only at the beginning. After that it was no harder than peeling a cucumber.

PJ: Who is growing them?

SB: I found a couple of places, both of which are out in California, that are growing nopalitos and tunas, or the fruits. Most of the actual agricultural production is obviously in Mexico, but a few places are cropping up in the states. One of those places is D'Arrigo Bros. farms; they put out cactus pears under the Andy Boy brand. They have a dedicated 350 acres of just cactus, which makes them by far the largest cactus farm for food production in the U.S.

PJ: That is huge. Where does the last name come from? It doesn't sound Mexican.

SB: From my understanding, from what they told me, it's actually an Italian name. Most of their customers are still Italian immigrants because -- I didn't realize this at all -- but Italians, especially in Sicily and southern Italy, love eating the cactus fruit. Mexico, according to the United Nations, is by far the largest producer, but No. 2 is Italy.

PJ: How did it get to Italy?

SB: I've read Columbus, but I haven't confirmed that. I'm not going to go out on a limb saying that Columbus showed up in Italy with cactus pears and everybody fell in love with them. But it seems at some point trade with the new world brought those over to Italy, and it has become this real staple of Italian cooking.

PJ: Now what's going on -- are they starting to sell the cactus pear or the nopalitos?

Grilled Nopales Recipe: Grilled Nopales

SB: They are. It's a food that more and more people say is really, really good for all kinds of aspects of your health. Just to name a few, apparently cactus paddles are full of fiber, full of vitamin C and full of antioxidants. One of the most interesting benefits of the cactus paddles is that they help control blood sugar, which I didn't realize. There are actually a lot of people who are ordering these cactus paddles online and buying them at the store, and using them as a folk medicine to help treat diabetes and help regulate blood sugar.

PJ: It is one incredible ingredient. I think as long as cactus is sold without the needles, they are going to really pick up. Have you seen chefs using nopalitos, or is it only the Mexican restaurants?

SB: I have talked to one friend of mine in Colorado named Adam Brock, who runs a food nonprofit. He knew of a chef who used nopalitos in a salad. I would imagine there are chefs out there who might not have an inclination toward Mexican cuisine, but who have been starting to use this crop not just because of its health benefits, but because it grows locally in places where there are not a lot of local crops.

For instance, in Colorado so much of what we eat isn't native to Colorado. This is an example of a food that could be grown as a crop, but often just grows as a weed -- like I saw on a bike ride on the side of the road. It's easy to grow; it requires no agricultural inputs. If it does, it's very little water, very little pesticide and very little fertilizer. I think it really appeals to chefs who are trying to reach an audience that is interested in local foods. As far as these arid or semi-arid places, it can't get much more local than cactus.

Patricia Jinich
Pati Jinich is a cooking teacher, food writer and chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. She hosts the public television series Pati’s Mexican Table broadcasted nationwide and released her first cookbook, also titled Pati’s Mexican Table, in March 2013.