At first glance, the prickly cactus does not exactly look like a five star meal...However, most people don't realize that there are over 540 edible plants that flourish in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and the locals have been harvesting and eating them for years.
According to ethno-botanists, the Sonoran Desert is home to more edible plants than anywhere else on Earth. Who knew there was so much food to be found in the desert?
One of the most popular edible plants is the cactus – the prickly pear in particular. This variety of cactus comes with three edible parts: the pad, the flower petals and the pear. In Arizona, this cactus is usually cooked with fruit to create a syrup, sauce or delightfully sweet candy.
Some chefs, such as Lucy Wing of the Jade Grill in Superior, like to pair the prickly pear cactus sauce with Asian spring rolls. And even amateur cooks can incorporate this plant into their menus, as ‘How to Juice Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit’ workshops run each year from August to Labor Day in the Superior area. There’s even an ‘Edible Medicinal Desert Plant Tour’ that runs from June through to August.
Another way to experience the edible vegetation is to stop at Cheri's Desert Harvest in Tucson. Cheri's has a great selection of all-natural products made from indigenous fresh fruits and vegetables, all of which can be found in the Sonoran Desert. Prickly pear preserves are a favorite, but the most exciting part of a trip to Cheri's is the chance to have a refreshing cactus margarita on a hot day – which in Arizona is pretty much every day!
For a desert plant experience in Phoenix, pay a visit to the Desert Botanical Gardens. The eating of plants is discouraged, but travellers can see the world's largest and most diverse collection of desert plants in the gardens’ greenhouses. The collection includes over half of the known species of cacti, aloe and century plants. A trip to the gardens provides the perfect opportunity to see a stunning display of all the beauty that the desert holds – without the threat of rattlesnakes or scorpions.
However, if you can't look at an edible desert plant without salivating, the gardens offer a ‘Taste of the Southwest’ cooking demo and lunch tour. Chefs prepare you a delicious garden lunch from some of the edible plants that you will see during a tour of the gardens.
We can’t talk about edible cacti without mentioning the agave, the main ingredient in tequila. One of the best places to get a taste of true agave tequila is at Cruz Tequila in Scottsdale. Cruz Tequila is made from 100 per cent blue agave cactus and is one of the smoothest tequilas in the world. The agave cactus is steamed in a traditional brick oven for two days before it is allowed to cool. The juice is then slowly extracted and fermented before being double-distilled and aged in oak barrels.
For those who don't want their cactus in alcohol form, there are restaurants throughout Arizona that serve up the plant in creative culinary ways. For example, the Cowboy Club in Sedona serves a mean plate of cactus fries. The cactus is cut up into strips before being breaded and deep fried. They’re not exactly French fries, but this is eating adventure all of its own. While in Sedona, travellers should also check out the Oaxaca, which serves up grilled cactus pads with roasted pepper and tomato sauce as an appetizer.