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.