Houda Mzioudet | 13 September 2012
With summer drawing to a close and the beginning of the school year just around the corner, a peculiar Tunisian fruit has recently made an appearance in downtown Tunis’ backstreets. Carts full of red and green prickly pears mixed in with ice dot the streets leading in and out of the main train station of Place Barcelone and the neighboring Bab Jedid market.
“Hindi Thala ya wakkala” (come and eat Thala Hindi), one can hear when walking past these carts of colorful fruits.
Prickly pears, which come from the cactus plant and are nationally known as Hindi (literally meaning Indian), are consumed by a large segment of the Tunisian population for its texture and sweet taste as a dessert. As such, it has garnered the title as the “king of summer fruits.”
“People come mostly to eat prickly pears around lunch time,” Ali Briki, a 38 year-old prickly pear street vendor, told Tunisia Live while serving two customers, who stopped to buy the cactus fruit at around 10 a.m. One of the clients, a professional man in his mid 50s and dressed in a grey suit and white shirt, ate a hara, or four pieces, of peeled cactus fruits before setting off spryly to work.
In spite of the fruit’s prized taste, Tunisians will not go out of their way to pick prickly pears and peel them themselves. The cactus fruit is mostly sought after only once it has already been peeled by the street vendor selling.
Customers want to be spared a prickle or two in peeling the cactus and are not willing to expend much effort on what has been known for decades as the “fruit of the poor.”
This tendency to abstain from prickly pears unless peeled has brought about a popular phrase among Tunisians, “looking for Hindi Meqacher (peeled prickly pears).” The expression refers to anyone who seeks out a living without making much effort.
Briki set outs to the streets everyday, displaying his cart full of differently hued prickly pears from morning until 1 p.m. People stop at his cart to buy four prickly pears at half a dinar ($0.30). “I have been doing this job for the last nine to ten years,” he said in a quiet voice. “My father used to have a prickly pear cart in Tunis, and he passed it to me afterwards.”
Briki makes around fifteen dinars a day from selling prickly pears. He, nevertheless, complained that the overall cultivation of prickly pears has decreased in recent years.
Tunisia has favorable soil for the production of prickly pears of different kinds and colors – green, yellow, violet, red, and orange.
Historically, prickly pears were brought to Tunisia in the 16th century by Moors expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. They brought with them cactus saplings from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Originally, prickly pears were brought to Spain from its erstwhile colonies in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
Certain areas in Tunisia have become renowned for their harvests of prickly pears.
The towns of Thala and Kairouan are known for the significant amounts of prickly pears they produce for the domestic market, especially that of the capital city Tunis. Thala, in particular, is known for its unique variety of red colored Indian cactus, which is harvested from late August to early September.
Bouarghoub in the northeastern Cap Bon peninsula specializes in varieties of prickly pears known as Bianca, Giallo, and Rosa for their respectively white, yellow, and pink hues. The Cap Bon region, historically known for its vineyards, began producing prickly pears 20 years ago.
Briki picks up his daily box of prickly pears from the Bab Jedid market, near the Old Medina. “A box costs me between eight and nine dinars. I usually go in the afternoons when trucks come loaded with prickly pears from Kairouan, Thala, Sidi Bouzid, and Bouargoub,” he explained.
Prickly pears are known for causing constipation if eaten in large quantities so it advised to drink water after eating it. It is still prized for easing the digestion of its consumers. Prickly pears have also medical and therapeutic benefits. They contain fiber, vitamins, proteins, antioxidants, and sugars.
The attraction to prickly pears go beyond their taste. Cosmetics, toiletries and oil (cactus oil) are produced from the plant, which has increased the demand for the production of prickly pears from cosmetics laboratories.