Curious about using aloe vera in cooking? Here’s how to butcher and prepare it

Aloe vera is a plant many associate with skin care – it’s thought to soothe burned or dry skin – but it is edible. A sense of curiosity and some knife skills are required – and unless cooking with aloe vera is part of your culinary heritage, the spikey spears can be intimidating. Sweet drinks made with the gel-like flesh of this succulent are available almost everywhere now, and more and more grocery stores carry the big, fresh “leaves” in the produce aisle.

Native to the Arabian Peninsula, numerous aloe species have travelled and naturalized in most tropical regions around the world; it’s loved for its minimalist look as a houseplant, xeriscaping in hot and dry places, and for its nutritional and presumed-though-not-yet-proven medicinal value. Gaining popularity among herbalists and health-conscious foodies, aloe vera is now widely commercially cultivated in warm climates, including parts of the U.S., where it is processed into juices, gels, pills, lotions, and tonics for overall internal and external health and wellness. A 2015 article stated the worldwide aloe vera market that began as far back as the 4th century BC, is worth $13 billion annually, but don’t worry, at the grocery store, a fresh spear of aloe vera will only set you back a couple of bucks.

Aloe vera is a familiar ingredient in the foods and beverages of Asia, South East Asia, and the Caribbean, and can be enjoyed raw or cooked, in blended drinks, soups, and dips; in curries and stews and in salads. Its flesh, or transparent mesophyll, is strangely beautiful and almost flavourless with a slight “green” taste, but improperly prepared aloe that hasn’t been skinned and rinsed well, can be bitter and may cause tummy troubles due to the aloin, a compound found in aloe vera that has a laxative effect.

Aloe vera is considered a super-food by some, an everyday vegetable by many more, and a complete mystery by still others, but, once a spear of aloe has been prepared, it can be blended into a drink, or cut into cubes and used in many of the same recipes as cubes of meat or fish veggies, or fruit: in soups, stews, and curries, or julienned for salads and ceviche. Because it’s so neutral, it works just as well in sweet dishes; try adding the crystal clear cubes to a fruit salad, or poach cubes of aloe in fruit juice and serve over ice cream or yogurt. With its skin removed, its texture is tender, similar to an extra firm jelly, though mucilaginous or slimy. But that slime can and should be rinsed away.

In the GTA aloe can be found at T&T, some locations of FreshCo, and in many independent Asian, South East Asian, and Caribbean food shops. Don’t harvest aloe from potted plants and don’t buy it from the garden shop. There are approximately 500 species of aloe, but only aloe vera is good to eat, so stick to what is for sale in grocery stores.

Southwest Smoothie

This smoothie combines a couple of tropical ingredients found fairly easily in GTA grocers: aloe vera and hot pink cactus fruit or prickly pear. The combination of aloe and prickly pear creates a flavour akin to green banana – not too sweet – and the crunchy seeds of the cactus fruit will fall to the bottom if not completely pulverized by the blender. Maple water or sap is becoming easy to find, but can be replaced with apple or cranberry juice in a pinch. If prickly pear is unavailable, use any fruit you like in a smoothie.

1 large spear of aloe, peeled, washed, chopped; about 1 cup (250 mL)

1 prickly pear, peeled, chopped; about 1 cup (250 mL)

1 cup (250 mL) maple water or sap

2 tbsp (30 mL) maple syrup

1 cup (250 mL) plain or fruit-flavoured kefir or soy milk

1/2 cup (125 mL) plain or favourite fruit flavoured yogurt

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Place all ingredients into a blender – add a few cubes of ice to chill it all down – and liquefy.

Makes 2 drinks