Nopal (from the Nahuatl word nohpalli for the pads of the plant) is a common name in Spanish for Opuntia cacti—commonly referred to in English as prickly pear—as well as for its pads.

There are approximately one hundred and fourteen known species endemic to Mexico, where the plant is a common ingredient in numerous Mexican cuisine dishes. The nopal pads can be eaten raw or cooked, used in marmalades, soups, stews and salads, as well as being used for traditional medicine or as fodder for animals. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica or Opuntia matudae although the pads of almost all Opuntia species are edible. The other part of the nopal cactus that is edible is the fruit called the tuna in Spanish, and the "prickly pear" in English.

Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico, cleaned of spines, and sliced to the customer's desire on the spot. They can also be found canned or bottled, and less often dried, especially for export. Cut into slices or diced into cubes, nopales have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. In most recipes, the mucilaginous liquid they contain is removed by cooking. They are at their most tender and juicy in the spring.

Nopales are most commonly used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as huevos con nopales "eggs with nopal", carne con nopales "meat with nopal", tacos de nopales, in salads with tomato, onion, and queso panela (panela cheese), or simply on their own as a side vegetable.

Nopales have also grown to be an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine and in Tejano culture of Texas. 

A. growing nopales at home

Growing prickly pear cacti at home is easy enough, but the upright-growing varieties that are cultivated for nopales are not very winterhardy. The truly winterhardy prickly pears tend to be smaller, grow closer to the ground and have wicked spines.


Pic1: planting a store-bought nopal
Pic2: sprouting in early spring 2018-04-21
Pic3: young nopales 3 weeks later 2018-05-09

B. cleaning and cooking nopales

Several subtropical prickly pear varieties are grown commercially in Mexico for their edible pads. Nopales are available in most grocery stores in the Southwest.



nopales in the stores

Pic4: nopal pads in grocery store
Pic5: diced nopalitos in grocery store
Pic6: canned / pickled nopalitos

fresh nopales:

Pic7: nopales in the market
Pic8: cutting away the spines
Pic9: cleaned nopal pad


Pic10: slicing and/or dicing
Pic11: diced nopales, raw
Pic12: nopal salad, cooked




C. cooking nopales

Nopales can be eaten raw, but it not something I would recommend. Nopalitos ( = diced nopales) are often cooked twice. the first time removes the slime ('babosa' as Marielos calls it) and makes it more pleasant to eat. The pre-cooked nopalitos are then further processed into a meal.

pre-cooking nopales:

Pic13: rinse nopalitos
Pic14: boil  nopalitos
Pic15: rinse nopalitos

Removing the slime (skip this if the slime doesn't bother you)