I still remember the first time I saw tunas growing wild – José and I were visiting Mexico City one warm week at the end of the summer several years ago. One afternoon we were bored, so my suegra suggested that José take me on an official tour of Ciudad Universitaria. Also referred to as CU, it is home to the main campus of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (la UNAM or in English, the National Autonomous University of Mexico), the largest university in Latin America and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2007.
This year on September 22, UNAM celebrated 100 years since its founding as the National University of Mexico as it was conceptualized by Secretary and Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts, Justo Sierra, and inaugurated in 1910 by President Porfirio Díaz. The university is also the successor to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, founded by Spanish Royal Decree in 1551 – technically making UNAM one of the oldest universities in the Americas.
On the campus grounds, besides the historic buildings designed by some of Mexico’s most well-known architects, murals and sculptures by famous Mexican artists, an Olympic stadium that has hosted a Summer Olympic Games (1968) and a World Cup (1986), and an impressive number of students, faculty and staff, there exists a serene, green space that is as close to the original land’s flora and fauna as it might have grown freely during the height of the Aztec empire.
The Reserva Ecológica del Pedregal de San Ángel was created by the University in 1983 to protect one of the last relicts of that original ecosystem. It has also been an inspirational space for painters, poets, writers, architects and photographers that visited over the years and planted the seeds for new ideas and works about the beauty of the landscape. This was the case with such notable Mexican artists of the 20th century as Diego Rivera, Gerardo Murillo, Juan O’Gorman, Carlos Pellicer, Luis Barragán and Armando Salas Portugal. In particular, photos taken by Salas Portugal in the 1940s are a useful reference that today help understand the changing dynamics of a unique atmosphere running the gamut of the biological spectrum, varied topography and an extraordinary lava rock landscape.
And it’s no wonder so many found inspiration in the land there; it’s got some very deep history. In the early 1300s, a tribe called the Mexica were looking for a new land after the fall of the Toltec empire. They believed that their god, Huitzilopochtli, would show them a sign (an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus) to indicate where they should build a new city.
According to the legend, the Mexicas saw the sign on a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Being ever-so-resourceful, they invented a system to create garden islands that eventually helped to dry out the land which allowed them to begin constructing causeways to allow access to the island. In 1325, Tenochtitlán was born.
The area where the ecological reserve is located today was also part of Tenochtitlán, the seat of the great Aztec empire. The city’s name comes from the Nahuatl words “tetl,” meaning rock, and “nochtli,” meaning prickly pear. It would later be renamed Mexico City after the Aztecs were conquered by the Spaniards and the city was rebuilt in the 1520s.
I’ll never forget the breathtaking beauty I saw that first time I visited the reserve. There were these incredible deep orange wildflowers everywhere, and nopales and tunas growing at every turn, as if they were going to take over the whole land. The lava rock looked as if it had always been there since the beginning of time and life and civilization just grew around it. It was difficult to resist touching everything in the quest to take in every sensory treasure at my fingertips. As soon as we returned home, I excitedly told my suegra about seeing the tunas, and she asked if I’d ever eaten them before. When I told her I hadn’t, she told me to grab my purse and hop in the car – we were going on a field trip to the mercado to buy one of every fruit I had never eaten, including tunas.
We spent a memorable afternoon chatting in the kitchen, slicing and dicing, while my cuñada kept us company and showed me how to peel and eat the tunas. I hope that by the time José and I decide to have children that the ecological reserve is still flourishing with tunas so I can teach my little ones about this native fruit and the rich history behind how Tenochtitlán became Mexico City.
AGUA DE TUNA ROJA
- 5 red prickly pears
- 1-2 limes
- 2 cups of cold water
- chia seeds (optional)
- a fine mesh strainer
Start by cleaning the tunas with a mushroom brush or soft toothbrush under cool running water to remove any remaining small spines. Cut the top and bottom off of the fruit and stand it up on one end. Slice the skin off with a paring knife and then chop the fruit coarsely.
Put the fruit in the blender, just long enough to puree it so there are no chunks. Pour the puree through a fine mesh strainer over a small pitcher to strain the seeds. You may need to use a spoon or your hand to press the juice gently through the strainer. Discard the seeds once you’ve gotten all the juice out.
Add the juice of 1-2 freshly squeezed limes and 2 cups of cold water. Stir to incorporate. Pour a glass and enjoy. Yields 3 cups of juice. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
If you want to add chia seeds for an additional health benefit, pour yourself a glass and sprinkle just a pinch or two over the top of the juice. Allow the juice to sit for several minutes or until you see a jelly-like substance begin to form around the seeds and the top of the juice starts to look like it’s thickening a bit.
Chia seeds have been documented as an ancient superfood – the Aztecs used them and they’re a great source of omega fatty acids. They’re also an easily digestible form of protein (popular among vegetarians and those who follow raw food diets) and are full of minerals, vitamins and soluble fiber. You can find them at most health food stores and vitamin retailers if you don’t have access to a Mexico City-style tianguis, or open-air market.
- Have you tried tunas? How do you like them?