Mexican Food Specialties Nopalitos

They Eat Cactus Here and it’s My New Favorite Mexican Food

Within a month of my arrival I was complaining about Mexican food, saying: “If I have to eat one more tortilla, I’m going to barf.” Fortunately, soon after that I began discovering that there is more to Mexican cuisine than beans and tortillas. I sampled cheese enchiladas smothered in mole, a sweet-spicy brown sauce made with chocolate; fried Platano (a dense type of banana) topped with with cream and cheese; and scrumptious sherbet flavors like Guanabana (sour sop), mango, and mamey, a tropical fruit that tastes like a combination of sweet potato, cantaloupe and pumpkin pie. But of all the unique foods I have sampled, my favorite are the nopal cactus sold by vendors in the Mexican markets.

Vendor sells nopalitos at Hidalgo market in Guanajuato, Mexico

Most will recognize these oval green pads as the same spine covered Prickly Pear cactus that grow like weeds throughout the American Southwest. While they are virtually ignored and even scorned in the U.S., nopales are considered a delicacy in Mexico. After carefully peeling to remove its needles, the pads are boiled or roasted until tender. I have tried them in a cold salad flavored with green chiles, tomatoes, and vinegar; stir-fried with onions and chiles and sprinkled with crumbled cheese; and creamed with corn and ladled over scrambled egg-filled enchiladas. They are even delicious in smoothies, as in this recipe, which simply requires that all the following ingredients be whipped up in a blender:

Breakfast Smoothie
1 Banana
1 Nopal Pod
1 1/2 – 2 Cup Fresh OJ
Ice

But my favorite recipe is when the entire pad is roasted on an open grill, covered with homemade Panela cheese, and smothered in green sauce.

Nopal Cactus pads on the grill

Grilled nopalitos topped with homemade cheese and smothered in green sauce

Nopales are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and scientists are now studying the cactus for other health benefits. Because they are are low in carbohydrates nopales are believed to help in the treatment of diabetes and the cactus also has been used to lower cholesterol levels. Though much of the Mexican diet is still carbohydrate laden and sugar filled, I am finding that healthy alternatives are available, if I look hard enough.

Want to know more about unusual foreign foods? Check out Lonely Planet Blog Carnival #3, a collection of posts written by the LP Blogsherpa Bloggers and hosted by Jennifer Lo Prete at OrangePolkaDot.com that is devoted to unique foreign food finds when shopping in international markets.

20 Comments on “They Eat Cactus Here and it’s My New Favorite Mexican Food

  1. I had my first taste of nopales yesterday at my husband’s friend cookout. He grilled them right along with the pork and WOW! I wasn’t sure I was going to like them because of how slimy they were PRIOR to grilling. They were amazing! I was stuffed by the time I left the BBQ yesterday. I married a Mexican native in May, and he is always introducing me to new cultural foods. I love it! Never a dull moment.

    • That was my experience exactly, Donna! The first time I tried them they were slimy and I didn’t like them at all. Then I had them cooked properly and they were so delicious.

  2. No one else found that they were to slimed ? I just made some for a brigade of 10 chefs and not one enjoyed it ??? tastes good just can’t get past the texture

    • Hi Christopher: They CAN be slimy if not prepared correctly. And, like you, I don’t like them when they are slimy!

  3. I’m actually grilling cactus paddles tonight for some friends. I will be making grilled cactus, green onion, goat cheese quesadillas and pair it up with a nice Cab. I would encourage everyone to experiment grilling them first. There are plenty of grilling recipes out there. Good Luck!

  4. hi barabra… I just move to LA for a month and found the nopal cactus last week and still looking how to cook it until I struck to your photo. thanks for sharing. It is interesting vegetable for Asian like me. In indonesia we dont have addible cactus.

    thanks
    Damantoro

  5. Had a salad with cactus pods yesterday and am happy to hear they are low in carbs. Thank you for the info! Very tasty!

  6. My son has been in Guanajuato for 2 days and is already emailing that he’s eating cactus and it’s really good! It does look good!!

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  8. And now I’m craving Mexican food again! I don’t think I’ve every missed a country like I missed Mexico, and I was only there three weeks. It’s definitely got under the skin.

  9. Oh my – I can see it now…you are back in the US in Arizona sneaking around in people’s yards stealing their cactus!
    It actually sounds really yummy! As does that mamey fruit! Bring some to TBEX!

    • Sherry: If they would let us bring fruit and veggies across the border, I’d be bringing bushels back. There are so many delish things here.

  10. it is amazing what you can find to eat just growing out of the ground! I had never thought to eat cactus, but there ya go! I live in the Pacific Northwest where sword ferns gown in abundance and are rarely eaten but in Asia the tender shoots that uncurl in Spring are steamed and munched.

    One cultures weed is another cultures snack!Beautiful!!

    • Josh: That is SO true! Interesting that you make the Asia comparison because recently, when I was in Veracruz, Mexico, they were selling fried grasshoppers with line from buckets. Only other place I’ve seen that is in SE Asia.

  11. My family loves Mexican food. When I’m at home we have it at least once a week, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of eating cactus. It looks like a new food awaits me in Mexico!

  12. Yum…you are making me hungry, Barbara. You are talking about my favorite food.,, while the fare in Morocco is good, it pales in comparison to Mexican food.
    Jason (AlpacaSuitcase)

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