The nopal cactus is also known as the prickly pear cactus and is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The flat green pads which house the occasional menacing spike are best eaten when they're young and tender.
If you've stumbled onto nopales for sale where you live, or on a restaurant menu, you may be considering giving them a try. But what do nopales taste like, and are they worth your money? Let's dive in and take a look at their flavor and how they can be used in the kitchen.
Describing the taste of nopale pads
Young nopale pads offer a mild mix of bitter and tart flavor in one mouthful, with a citrus undertone. As a comparison, think of this vegetable as having the taste of okra, green beans, or asparagus. It doesn't pack a flavor punch; instead, it is quite bland. Its texture is more closely compared to bell pepper, thanks to its pleasant crunchy snap. The flesh is also sticky and soft.
If you come across mature pads, then we recommend avoiding them as they are simply too tough and unpleasant. At a pinch, you could slow cook them to break down the pith.
The time of harvest will also affect the flavor significantly. Picked in the hottest part of the day, the pads will have increased acidity. Pads harvested in the cooler times of day will be noticeably milder and more enjoyable.
Can you eat the fruit?
The nopal cactus also bears perfectly edible fruits; these are called prickly pears or cactus pears. They are a similar shape to an avocado, although much smaller. The flesh is very juicy and sweet, with a flavor profile similar to a watermelon. It has a lot of seeds inside, which are small, hard, and usually get discarded.
Culinary uses for the pads
In Mexico, the ingredient has been consumed for centuries as a staple, eaten like a vegetable. The cooking method will have a significant impact on the nopale pad's flavor, like with many ingredients. Some of the more common uses in cooking include:
- Fried along with eggs and tacos for a hearty snack.
- Added to casseroles or chili beans, it tends to act like zucchini, taking on the other flavors within the dish.
- Bake or grill, brushed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Boiled with garlic and onion, then added to salads.
- Add these cactus paddles to dishes that call for a squirt of lemon juice.
- Griddles on a comal, if you have one. You can get one on Amazon here.
- Add to soup to thicken its consistency.
- Pickle, jam, or juice for something a little different.
How to choose the best nopales
It is essential only to use the young, bright-colored pads which have a firm skin. The old soft ones with wrinkled skin are pithy, tough, and are not suitable for eating. There isn't a season for producing nopales, and they grow year-round successfully. However, young paddles produced in spring are the best – this is generally when food manufacturers collect their produce.
Fresh nopales can be stored in the refrigerator for 7-10 days before they start to soften and lose flavor. Wrap tightly in plastic before storing them in the vegetable crisper.
Can nopales be eaten raw?
It is safe to eat nopales raw; however, some people can be allergic to them. If you notice swelling or rashes after consuming, consult a doctor immediately.
Mexicans enjoy eating nopale pads raw, shredded. They refer to them as Nopalitos, a local favorite that is delicious added to salads.
The outer layer of skin is sliced or peeled off, along with the unwanted spikes (glochids). The remaining flesh is thinly sliced and then combined with paprika and lime juice before serving as a flavorsome salad on their own. As another option, toss in some cucumber, lettuce, cotija cheese, and tomato for a complete salad.
What does cactus water taste like?
Cactus water is derived from the prickly pear and tastes of watermelon with a hint of kiwifruit added. It is considered a healthy beverage packed with nutrients, including taurine, which acts as an antioxidant.
- The nopale pad is a part of the Opuntia ficus-indica cactus, which also produces prickly pears.
- Much loved Mexican dishes include huevos con nopales and tacos de nopales – both use nopales as a common ingredient. They are also delicious combined with queso panela cheese in salads.
- Nopales are gaining popularity in the United States and Europe thanks to the health benefits offered.
- The paddles are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and minerals. They are also low in calories, making them suitable for a range of diets.
- In Mexico, over 3 million hectares of land are used to grow nopal.
Where to buy
Nopale paddles are sold fresh at Latin American grocers and markets. They're also available in cans or jars in stores throughout the United States, where the Hispanic population is high. Of course, they're also growing wild from Latin America up to Canada. However, unless you know your cacti species, we wouldn't recommend lopping up the nearest cactus in the desert and eating it.
If you're new to the world of nopales, then don't be afraid to give them a try. They are mild in flavor, and the subtle sour and bitter taste is ideal for a range of recipes.
Have you eaten a nopale pad or prickly pear before? What did you think of their taste? Let us know in the comments below.