Living off the land with the Tohono O’odham tribe

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Sammy minsk.

The cholla buds are dumped into a pot and boiled until they become rubbery. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

What tastes like a mix between an asparagus and artichoke, has about the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk and is found in the Sonoran Desert?

Ciolim, also known as “the cholla bud,” is native to Southwest Arizona and is a food staple of the largest Native American tribe in Southern Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation.     

Right before the cholla bud blooms is the optimal time to be picked, noting the vibrant purple tips. (Photo Credit)

At the tribe’s San Xavier Food Co-op Farm, members hold workshops sharing traditional crop processing techniques of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Due to its richness in calcium and accessibility on the reservation, the cholla bud is one of the many crops in the tribe’s diet.

The bud can be harvested using different methods, including utilizing other plants from the environment.

“People are surprised how much you can use from the land,” said produce coordinator Jamie Encinas.

On the co-op’s 27-acres, the cholla cactus scatters the land with clustered branches jetting out in different directions. Saul Camacho, whose mother used to work at the co-op, said “the bud has to be picked before it blooms. Look for the small buds with purple tops. Once it blooms, you can’t eat it anymore.”

To avoid the thorns, kitchen tongs are necessary to twist and pluck off the bud off the cactus. Traditionally, two pieces of saguaro ribs wrapped in cloth at one end, called wa:pai, were used for tongs.

Wa-pai tongs made from saguaro ribs. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

“You have to be careful of how you pick the buds because the thorns can get on you or fly onto your clothes,” said Saul’s mother, Thomasina Camacho.  

There are a number of ways to get the thorns off the bud, which have been refined over the years. Natives use to cut off branches from creosote bush and whack the buds while they lay on a flat surface.

The creosote bush is used to wack off the thorns of the cholla buds. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

People also used a large metal screen, with wood bordering the edges. The buds are poured onto the screen and people on either side of the screen hold on to it and rock it back and forth in a swinging motion for about 10 minutes, or until most of the thorns get caught in the holes and fall off.

    The most popular way today to remove the thorns is by using a heat-free pepper roaster, which churns the buds in a 50 gallon metal mesh drum. Just like the screen, the thorns are caught in the holes and fall off onto the ground.

After the buds are dethorned, they are poured into a large pot of boiling water and cooked until they become rubbery. “If they are cooked too long, they break like a pickle,” said events coordinator and resident Phyllis Valenzuela. The buds should only be cooked partially, as they will be cooked again before they are ready to be eaten.

Cholla buds are dumped onto a screen and shaken back and forth. Thorns are caught in the holes and fall off. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

The buds are drained and placed onto a table outside, where they dry for one to two weeks. The table is lined with metal mesh and bordered with thin slabs of wood to keep the buds from flying off. “The weather is the main issue because if it’s windy the buds fly off,” said nursery coordinator Cie’na Schlaefli. “And if it rains, we have to quickly put a tarp over them. They also have to be turned so they don’t mold, but the color of the buds interpret what to look for. If they are whitish gray, then they’ve been sitting too long.”

  

Produce coordinator Jamie Encinas checks to make sure the thorns have fallen off the buds while in the roaster. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

After they’ve been dried, the buds are ready to be stored. Before they are eaten, they are boiled for a few minutes to put the moisture back into the cholla bud.

“They’re good on salads,” said Thomasina Camacho. “You can pickle them, make pico de gallo, eggs, lots of stuff.”

Sammy Minsk is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at minsk@email.arizona.edu