Maybe the idea of eating a cactus sounds intimidating (hello, those spines exist for a reason?), but nopales, also called nopalitos, have been part of Mexican cuisine since before the Spanish arrived. Here’s how to cook and eat them.
What are Nopales?
Nopales (pronounced no-PA-lees) are cactus leaves that come from the cactus variety that also produces prickly pear fruit. They have a paddle-like shape and grow covered in spines, but are often sold with the spines removed. Nutrient-rich and hydrating, nopales have long been an important part of the diet in arid areas where water may be scarce.
Nopales have a rather mild flavor reminiscent of grassy vegetables like green beans. Rancho Gordo, a popular specialty foods store known for their dried heirloom beans, describes their flavor much as one would describe a fine wine: “you may taste hints of string beans, asparagus or even green pepper, all with a citrus, or sorrel-like undercurrent.”
If you do need to remove any spines, use a sharp knife to shave in both directions, keeping as much skin intact as possible. When all the spines are gone, rinse the nopal with water. “If you should get a spine in your skin,” advises Rancho Gordo, “try to remove it with adhesive tape.”
The nopale flesh is rich with mucilage (and rich with soluble fiber), which must be handled correctly or risk okra-level slime. To avoid textural issues, many recipes will instruct boiling the sliced nopales as a primary step. Still have questions? My Recipes gives another perspective on the slime factor.
Cooking & Eating
Nopales can be eaten grilled, sauteed, or boiled. When grilled, the preparation can be quite simple: grill the paddles whole over hot coals until tender and brown in spots. Then slice the nopale into strips and toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lime.
Nopales are also used in many types of vegetable salads. In particular, ensalada de nopales combines cooked nopales with fresh tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and often green pepper, all mixed with lime juice and Mexican oregano, and sprinkled with crumbled white queso. Mexico in My Kitchen has more recipes for salads featuring nopales.
Nopales and eggs are a common pairing, as in this recipe from The Spruce for nopales with scrambled eggs. Serve with salsa and warm corn tortillas, or on a breakfast sandwich, or any way you’d have eggs.
Where to Find Them
In Mexico, it’s common to find fresh nopales that are stripped of spines and sliced to order while you wait. In the United States, you can find fresh nopales in Mexican markets. Other stores that offer Mexican foods may sell nopales in cans or jars.
Feature Image: Marzena P. from Pixabay