Nopal Cactus

Nopal (also known as the Prickly Pear cactus) is hardy, drought-tolerant, and reproduces easily by cuttings. Forty years ago I took a small cactus pad from the home of my wife’s grandmother in Hollister California. Nopal is a species and an ingredient made from the Opuntia cacti, in the subfamily Opuntioideae. They are particularly common in their native Mexico where the plant is a common ingredient in numerous Mexican cuisine dishes in which it can be eaten raw or cooked. It can be 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, 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 or more commonly known in English as Prickly Pear.

There are approximately one hundred and fourteen known species endemic to Mexico. ; (from the Nahuatl word nohpalli /noʔˈpalːi/ for the pads)

A nopalito is a vegetable made from the young cladode (pad) segments of prickly pear, carefully peeled to remove the spines. These fleshy pads are flat, about hand-sized, and can be purple or green.


Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico. In more recent years, bottled or canned versions are available mostly for export. Less often dried versions are available. Used to prepare nopalitos, they have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. In most recipes, the mucilaginous liquid they contain is sometimes included in the 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, or simply on their own or in salads with queso panela (panela cheese). Candied nopal is called acitróne. Nopales have also grown to be an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine and in Tejano culture (Texas).

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