It’s hard to think of Mexico without images of cactus plants. From landscapes to murals, to paintings, photos, plays, songs… and namely to the Mexican flag! Mexico’s coat of arms has an eagle eating a snake triumphantly standing on a cactus plant. As legend goes, that sign led the Aztecs to their promised land, Tenochtitlán.
But you know what is even harder? To think of a Mexican table without cactus, or nopales, on our plates. They’ve been a crucial ingredient since pre-Hispanic times.
Though there are hundreds of varieties, the most common is the Prickly Pear cactus. It has fleshy leaves or paddles, that are used as a vegetable in salads, stews, soups, eggs, stews, all sorts of appetizers and even smoothies and juices -a really popular one combines nopales with orange juice and my mom is fond of adding fresh spinach to the mix. They are used as a base to mount other ingredients onto, as a wrapper instead of thick tortillas and as a filler or topper for tamales, quesadillas, tostadas… They are found from breakfast to dinner options and anywhere in between (continue for more information and photos).
They grow onwards and upwards in a funny way, from paddle to paddle. Their skin is shinny and green, and it is covered in tiny, almost transparent, thorns that happen to be quite vicious when you try to remove them from the little bumps they grow out of. If the paddles aren’t cut, those bumps grow into tunas, or prickly pear fruits.
Nopales are so filling and versatile, that I am waiting to see them star as a top choice for vegetarians outside of Mexico. More so, as they are insanely nutritious, with vitamin A, C and a loadful of Iron. And to top that off, they are low, low, low fat. They can be cooked in many ways, from boiled, to steamed, sautéed, grilled and are delightful when pickled. Whichever way they are cooked, they have an irresistible chewy meaty bite and a mild flavor that has a tart edge to it.
One reason they haven’t spread like wild fire may be that many people don’t know how to cook them and when they try, they don’t know how to deal with the gelatinous, viscous, slimy liquid they exude as they cook. Now, you can’t let yourself get discouraged from that description, there are many ways to deal with that gooey liquid -think of cooking down mushrooms-. I have my favorite way, that always works!
Another reason nopales haven’t become so popular outside of Mexico, yet, may be that they are not… so… easy… to clean. Skilled Mexican cooks get away with removing the thorns without being pricked and out in the country they tend to be cleaned with a machete. It does take some practice, but there are ways to go about it even without such a rough tool.
In Mexico, you find nopales sold in markets and stores already cleaned and even diced. You can find them like that in a few Latin or international stores abroad, but mostly, when found fresh, you have to clean them yourself. They are also sold in jars, cans or bags preserved in a lightly pickled juice. Not my favorite, but if that is the only way you find them, grab them, run for the checkout and give them a quick rinse before you use them. Better to get that, then none at all… take it from a nostalgic Mexican…