Algerians rediscover prickly pears during Ramadan
By Mohand Ouali for Magharebia in Algiers – 20/08/12
Market stalls in Algeria are laden with melons, plums, peaches, grapes, pears, apples, dates, oranges, bananas, cherries and pineapples, to the great delight of shoppers who have a wide range of options and prices to choose from.
The abundant fruit provides a break for many Algerians suffering through the summer heat amid power cuts.
Even prickly pears are making a comeback as a dessert fruit for Algerians, who are rediscovering their love for them because of the success of "El Hendi", as they are known locally. Shoppers are not hesitating to satisfy their curiosity or give in to their nostalgia for a taste they had almost forgotten.
Paradoxically, fruit sellers very rarely stock them. Because of an unwritten agreement whose origins are shrouded in mystery, prickly pears are sold only by casual traders.
This summer, prickly pear sellers quickly appeared in markets, small squares and busy streets in the working-class districts of Algiers. With their crates of well-ripened or green fruit (as some people prefer their fruit to be) laid out on simple stalls, all they have is gloves to protect themselves from the thin spines that adorn the skin of prickly pears and knives to peel them with.
Fruit is sold per kilo or singly, peeled or unpeeled, as the customer wishes. A kilo of fruit costs the modest sum of 40 dinars. Peeled or unpeeled individual pieces of fruit change hands for 5 dinars apiece.
As prickly pears are best eaten fresh, sellers also have jugs of water to freshen them up by splashing them, which also removes their spines. "Once it has been soaked, the fruit doesn't keep and it can quickly go off in the heat, especially if it's very ripe," said one customer.
He also advised against buying the fruit peeled and pre-packed. "It's not very hygienic, especially if it hasn't been done while you're there waiting," he said.
The Opuntia fruit grows in the wild. The cactus is widespread in the Algerian countryside, where it is planted to mitigate the effects of erosion or as hedgerows to separate fields. Families benefit from the fruit, which becomes ripe around the middle of August.
Often, along roadsides, children offer passing motorists "cans" full of this fruit which they sell for a few dinars. This is a secondary source of income for many poor families and a good opportunity for kids to make a bit of pocket money.
"I saw twenty of them when I was on holiday in Bejaia. It's a fruit that I really like, but I haven't bought any yet," commented Lies, who said he remembers how his grandmother used to warn him about the constipation that can result from eating too much.
Madjid told us about his mother-in-law: "She bought a full bag of peeled, fresh prickly pears which she put in the fridge. I ate some and thought they were delicious. I hadn't tried any since I left Morocco in 1996."
"Why? Here, in Algeria, my eating habits changed. In Morocco, it's ambient traders who sell them, shouting 'El Hendi, el mouss min andi wa chouk fi yadi!', which means 'come and try my prickly pears, I'll peel them and take off the spines!'," Madjid continued.
These words caught on across the Maghreb, as sellers in Algeria used to the same thing to entice customers. Sadly, they no longer do so. Each fruit and vegetable seller had their own song to advertise their wares, but this tradition has largely disappeared.
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