PICK AND PREPARE WITHOUT GETTING PRICKED | Sharon Henry
Tungis are the ‘Fort Knox’ of the fruit kingdom and specialist skills are required to pick and eat one. Skills that will sidestep booby traps of needle-sized prickles and tiny hair-like splinters to avoid getting seriously pricked. If done incorrectly, things will turn nasty. But, breach that vault successfully and the treasure inside is deliciously rewarding.
Good Reasons To Eat More Tungi
Let’s first explain what a tungi (pronounced ‘tune-chee’) is. Also known as prickly pear or tuna fruit, tungi, as we call them on St Helena is a member of the cactus family. We have varieties in colours of green, yellow and red.
The fruit is similar in shape and size to the kiwi and can grow up to three inches long. The outer skin is smooth but dotted with furry concentrations of tiny splinters (hairs) called glochids. Their fluffy appearance is deceptive; when embedded in your skin or mouth they can be extremely irritable and painful. The flesh of the fruit itself is pitted with brown seeds but is succulent and sweet and although it tastes like a mix between melon and kiwi it has its own unique flavour.
The tungi cactus grows like weeds in the low lying, dry areas of St Helena in districts like Half Tree Hollow and New Ground. Tungi used to be a diet staple but now they fall rotten off the bush as it seems most Saints prefer to buy imported fruit from Cape Town. The cactus is now considered more of a pest rather than a fruit-bearing tree.
Rich in vitamin C and magnesium and high in fibre, the health benefits of tungi are glowing and best of all – it’s free because they grow in the wild.
At this time of year tungis are abundant on St Helena between the end of summer to mid autumn, March to May in the southern hemisphere. With this in mind we went on a harvesting spree with an expert in the art of tungi picking, Pat Henry (aka Darrin’s dad.) Armed with tools of the trade; garden gloves, a sharp knife and a bucket we set off in the late afternoon to forage the hillside above Half Tree Hollow.
How to pick and eat a tungi
1. Wearing leather palmed garden gloves, grab and twist a fruit that’s ripe and ready. It should break off the bush easily. Kitchen tongs can also be used.
2. Rub the fruit gently but firmly on a patch of grass or gravel to brush off the prickles and hairs. Another option is to break off a leafy lantana shrub branch to brush and dust the hairs off the fruit whilst it’s still attached to the bush. Don’t stand downwind or you’ll get the little blighters in your face.
3. Move the fruit to a ‘clean’ spot and with a sharp knife make a shallow incision lengthways from bottom to top about a 1/4 inch deep, just enough to cut through the skin. Repeat this along the opposite side.
4. Prise one side of the skin apart with the knife, it should open like a clam shell without much resistance. This exposes a ball of white flesh in the centre. With your bare fingers grab the outer edges and pull that luscious nugget from its casing.
Viola! That’s how it’s done; you have a tungi fruit, fresh off the bush and ready to eat without the danger of getting hairs in your mouth.
5. Another method is eating the tungi right off the tree but it feels a tad like vandalism. Brush the hairy bristles off the tungi whilst it’s still attached to the pad. With a sharp knife, slice the top off. Make careful incisions lengthways along the sides, peel back the skin and prise out the flesh with your fingers leaving the case/shell still on the bush.
It feels almost primal eating tungis out on the trail, freshly picked and raw, and doing so makes the taste all the more delectable. Especially with the sun warming your skin and spectacular views of the vast Atlantic Ocean to enjoy like here on St Helena. It’s a sweet life!
6. Back home brush and scrub your bucketful of free fruit under running water to completely remove any remaining pesky hairs, ready for peeling and eating with ice cream.
7. Tungis will keep in a fridge for up to two weeks and there are umpteen recipes online on how to use them. So get creative!
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
I can’t stress enough the importance of avoiding those nasty tungi hairs. Once embedded they feel like tiny shards of glass and are annoyingly difficult to remove because of their minute size. The name ‘prickly pear’ was not given in jest. If you are unfortunate enough to get the little rascals in your skin, an online remedy suggests placing a layer of concrete glue on the affected area, let it dry then peel off. Duct tape is also supposed to be helpful. Let us know if this works.
But, if you follow our instructions carefully you shouldn’t need glue – right?
Waste Not Want Not
The prickly pear is popular in Mexico and it’s found in the form of jams to juices to margaritas. I discovered through research that the whole tungi cactus plant is edible, the pads (leaves) are boiled as a vegetable, the flower petals eaten in salads and of course the fruit for a variety of yummy treats.
Tungi or Cactus Fruit Recipes
Here are two methods for extracting tungi juice, the base for many recipes.
Method 1: Cut off the ends and peel the fruit keeping the rind, chop and place in a blender. Then strain through a sieve lined with a sheet of kitchen roll to remove the seeds. I find it tastes better if you omit the skin.
Method 2. Cut in quarters and place the scrubbed tungis in a pot with just enough water to cover and boil for 10 minutes. Mash then strain the juice and water through a colander with two layers of cheesecloth to remove the seeds and pulp. 2 1/2 lbs of fruit yields about 2 1/2 cups of juice.
Prickly Pear Punch (taken from ‘What’s Cooking In St Helena’) Serves 4
3/4 pint (426ml) prickly pear juice
8 fl oz (228ml) rum
Mix the prickly pear juice and rum together. Sweeten with a little sugar if necessary and serve on crushed ice.
Tungi Jam (courtesy of Ruth Pridham)
1 lb tungi
1 1lb sugar
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon water
Peel and cut fruit into small pieces and boil in a saucepan with a 1/2 tablespoon of water until fruit is soft. To remove the seeds strain pulp through a sieve. Return seedless pulp to the saucepan and bring to the boil. Stir in the sugar and because tungi fruit is low in pectin add 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice. Boil steadily whilst stirring until mixture is thick and ready to set. To test, put a small amount on a saucer and place in a freezer for 5 minutes. Run finger through jam and if ready the line should keep shape. Ladle into sterilised jars for canning.
1 1/4 cups fresh prickly pear juice
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons sugar
Blend, chill and serve over ice. If it’s too tart for your taste, add more sugar. Add a splash of vodka, gin or tequila for an adult beverage.