Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cactus Oasis

What's in a fruit, what's in a name?

In the case of the prickly pear or cactus fruit, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is "huh???"

Personally, I wouldn't have thought of this much forgotten exotic fruit had it not been for my daily walk around Jumeira.

Since starting this blog, whatever I come across or whatever I do or think of has in it the seeds of a post. And so it is that while walking a friend's Labrador every evening, I catch sight of something and start writing about it in my head. Most of these sightings and thoughts quickly evaporate but some linger for a while.

I keep making it a point to take a route on my dog walks that takes me past an atypical garden. The majority of villas here in Dubai have extended front gardens and lawns that are typically well maintained and skillfully groomed. The garden that caught my eye does not have a green lawn or well-watered grass or changing seasonal flowers, but a variety of cactus plants growing wildly, in a kind of designed way. I watched the fruits grow and ripen as the days went by, which made me realize that I haven't had cactus fruit or sobbayr in ages.

The beauty of sobbayr is that it makes the grades of a fruit, a vegetable, and a flower with purported medical benefits -- something rare in the botanical kingdom.

It isn't something I would buy in the supermarket, take home, handle with care and gobble alone. Somehow, I have always associated sobbayr with street vendors in pre-war Beirut – specifically between Maarad and Burj.

My recollection is of the street vendors then keeping their sobbayr stock in a cold-water container -- topped by a huge block of ice -- loaded on top of their wooden cart. They would be wearing heavy-duty rubber gloves and holding a sharp knife. On demand, they would pick one sobbayra at a time, place it on a wooden board, cut off the top and the base, peel the sides, push the fruit up with their forefinger and forward with their thumb for you to grab and devour. Skins of the sobbayr you would have eaten would be kept in a pile on the wooden cart until you had had your fill. That’s when the skins were counted and you were asked to pay for the number you had consumed.

A quick recap then -- if you want to go through the exercise at home: wear heavy-duty gloves, soak then wash the cactus pears. Use a sharp knife to slice off the fruits’ top and base by about one centimeter on each end, cut length-wise along the pear's top-base center-line just through the skin. Then, with the knife, use that slit to lever the skin and peel it off the rest of the pear. Et voila!

The cactus pear is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds inside that you just swallow. It usually breaks after the first bite and you're left with juices running down your chin and your hands ready to be licked. But it is succulent.

Whereas I thought sobbayr was a fruit typical of our Mediterranean and Gulf regions, it turns out that it has been the staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. They even eat the pad of the cactus, which they call the nopa. Apparently it tastes like green beans with the texture of okra.

And no, I haven't adopted these cactus plants!  I see their owner lovingly taking care of her sobbayr oasis, but when I decided to take pictures and write about it, I stopped seeing her. Although I rang the bell of her villa several times, it must have always been when she was out.

Join me for a walk around this cactus garden, and if you haven't tried the fruit, please do... This week's Haiku is dedicated to sobbayr:

Take a walk with me,

Sometimes rough, often sweet... in

A cactus garden