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.
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
young nopales 3 weeks later 2018-05-09
- To make sure you have a good food-variety, buy some nice-looking nopal pads in the grocery store.
- Place them upright in an empty flower pot for 2 weeks to dry and recover, then on sand or dry dirt. (Pic1) When they start showing roots, plant the pad about 1/3 in well-draining sandy potting soil.
Planting them immediately in wet substrate will make them rot. Planting them deeper stabilizes the pad and will cause it to form more roots on the side of the pad.
- If you grow them in large containers, they should be fine as long as you can protect them from freezing. I live in USDA zone 8a with generally mild freezing. I usually leave them outside on the porch and most them live through the winter without too much damage as long as they are kept dry. Rain followed by freezing can do a lot of damage.
- Allow them to grow at least 2 years without harvesting, that they can get some bulk.
Larger plants will produce better. I leave at least 3 unharvested pads to get a more comfortable height.
- As soon as freezing danger is over, move the plants in full sunlight. Here in the desert, I have to keep them in a walled garden. Jackrabbits will gladly eat them spines and all if they can get to them.
- Harvesting can begin from the 3rd or 4th pad upwards. Prune back lower sprouts, that the plant puts it energy in larger pads.
- Water the cacti plants generously in early spring, that the leaves look fat. That will result in abundant sprouting. (Pic1)
- As long as the young pads have little leaves on their flat sides (Pic2) they are nice and tender.
Don't let the plant dry out, or growth will stop. Water at least every other week.
- Once those fall off, the new pads will begin to harden and sprout spines. Some people prefer them that way.
- Only harvest this season's pads. The older ones get too fibrous and can even turn woody.
- If you have risk of freezing where you live, don't water the plants anymore from September on. From October, keep them out of the rain by moving them under a porch. The plant can tolerate freezing better if they have been dried out.
- Prune the pads back in a flat shape and manageable height. (Pic1)
That makes it easier to transport the heavy pots with a dolly.
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
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
- Look for thin but firm leaves that don't have big spines.
Shriveled leaves that are easy to bend are not very fresh.
- Lay the pads flat on a cutting board.
- Use a sharp knife to cut away the edge. Discard.
- Use a thin peeler or a sharp knife to remove the stickers on both sides (Pic5) taking care to leave as much as possible of the green skin. (Pic6)
- Some people cut the pads through the middle to facilitate removing the slime.
- Slice (Pic7) and/or dice (Pic8) the nopales as you prefer.
Some people prefer them sliced in thin ribbons.
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.
Pic13: rinse nopalitos
Pic14: boil nopalitos
Pic15: rinse nopalitos
Removing the slime (skip this if the slime doesn't bother you)
- Soak the sliced / diced nopales for 30 minutes in water in a non-reactive bowl. Drain.
- Mix 1 tbsp. salt and 1 tbsp. baking soda into the nopales.
- Rest 30 minutes.
- Boil the nopales for 3 minutes in 2 qts. of unsalted water.
- Rinse again.
- The nopalitos are now ready for consumption in raw salads, or for further cooking.
- Boil the nopales
- for 3-30 minutes in 2 qts. of unsalted water, depending on how crisp/soft you want them.
- Alternatively, sauté in olive oil.
- Season to taste.
- Serve and enjoy.