Cactus gets a bad rap. It’s prickly, uninviting, and some might even say ugly. But here in Mexico, nopales, the fleshy pads of the prickly pear cactus make regular appearances at the dinner table. One of the easiest ways to prepare cactus is in the form of a simple cactus salad.
Are you ready to learn about this delicious and nutritious food? Let’s get started!
What can I make with prickly pear cactus?
The question really should be “what can’t you make with prickly pear cactus”. Because, here in Mexico, you can find nopales just about everywhere.
First, you should know that prickly pear cactus plant parts have different names and are used for different types of dishes in Mexico.
Let’s start with the prickly pear pad. These fleshy pads are called nopales (say it like: no-PAW-lays) in Mexico.
Nopales can be cooked in soups, stews, salads (like the one we are going to make here), moles, or quesadillas. Mix them with other ingredients, like eggs, meat, or chorizo for a quick entree. Use them to stuff tamales. Or alternatively, stuff the nopales themselves with cheese or meat. The easiest way to make them is to simply grill them whole and season with a bit of salt.
Nopales are also used for making sweets like jams, cakes, pies, flavored gelatin, or ice creams.
I even put them in juice!
The fruit of the prickly pear cactus is also used in Mexican cuisine. It is called tuna if it is sweet or xoconostle (say it like: sho-cone-NOSE-tlay) if it is tart.
Xoconostles are used in a variety of salsas, soups, and salads. They are sometimes added to mole de olla or other dishes as a vegetable.
Tunas are deliciously sweet and are eaten raw, or prepared in salsas, desserts, and drinks, like this refreshing prickly pear water.
Mexicans consume nearly all parts of this cactus! They even use this plant to make cleaning products, soaps, lotions, and shampoo!
The importance of the prickly pear in Mexican culture
As you can see, this plant is a versatile food and is widely consumed here in Mexico.
But, if the above didn’t convince you of the importance of this plant in Mexican culture, just take a look at the Mexican flag.
It may be a bit hard to see in the above picture, but that eagle is standing on a prickly pear cactus plant.
Yep, this cactus is so important it even shows up on the flag! So, why is there an eagle standing on a prickly pear cactus on the Mexican flag?
According to legend, the god Huitzilopochtli ordered a Mexica tribe from northeastern Mexico to leave their home and journey to a new land. His instructions said they were to establish a new city in a place where they found an eagle standing on top of a prickly pear cactus eating a snake.
The journey took over 200 years to complete. But in the end, the tribe saw their symbol and founded Mexico-Tenochtitlan in the year 1325 in what is now known as Mexico City.
And in honor of this legend on the founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the nopal has earned its place on the Mexican flag.
Is cactus healthy?
Although a prickly cactus plant may look unappetizing to eat, there are several nutritional benefits of this food.
- Vitamin A: helps with vision, growth, and immunity, and has antioxidant properties
- Vitamin B: impacts energy levels and brain function
- Vitamin C: helps your body build blood vessels, form muscles, and heal
- Fiber: helps to maintain bowel health, lowers cholesterol, and helps control blood sugar levels
- Calcium: promotes healthy bones and teeth, and regular heart rhythms
- Magnesium: supports energy production, and muscle and nerve function
What does all of this mean? Nopales can help prevent diseases like diabetes, eliminate toxins caused by alcohol or tobacco consumption, and prevent ulcers.
So, now that you know the nutritional benefits of this food, and why it is so important in Mexico, let’s get cooking!
How to make cactus salad
Cactus salad is so easy to make, anybody can do it!
Prepare and cook the cactus pads
Here in Mexico, nopales are so common that you can buy them at any local market or grocery store. They are sold with the thorns removed.
When you are buying prickly pear cactus pads, look for thin pads with a bright, light green color. Avoid any cactus that is discolored or wrinkled at the edges.
Once you have the cactus, you will want to remove any remaining thorns, rinse them clean, and then cut them into small squares. They don’t have to be perfect, but I typically like mine to be about 1/2 inch to 1-inch square pieces.
You will notice the cactus will ooze a viscous, slimy liquid. I know that sounds completely unappetizing, but cooking this cactus will help eliminate that substance.
Place the cut cactus in a large pot and fill it with water. Add salt and a chunk of onion, about 1/4 onion to the pot. Boil the cactus partially covered until is easily pierced with a fork, about 10-15 minutes.
Next, drain the cactus and remove the onion. Rinse the cactus under cold running water to stop the cooking process and remove any viscous liquid.
Making the cactus salad
Once the cactus is cooked, all you have to do now is mix the cactus with the rest of the ingredients! Simply place all of the remaining ingredients in a bowl with the cactus and stir them together.
Add salt and lime juice to taste.
Now, all you have to do is enjoy this salad!
Want to know what to eat with cactus salad? We like to have this as a side dish to savory amaranth fritters, or steak and onions. You could even heat these up and mix them with scrambled eggs for a filling breakfast. Or use it as part of your next taquiza!
Cactus Salad (Ensalada de Nopales)
- 1 lb prickly pear cactus pads, thorns removed, rinsed and cut into cubes (~ 4 cups cut up) ~464g or 9-10 small pads
- 3/4 medium onion, divided 1/4 left in a large chunk to cook with the nopales, the remaining part, diced. See notes for additional info
- 3 medium Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced ~12 ounces or ~350g
- juice of 1 lime
- chopped cilantro or dried oregano to taste (optional)
- Salt to taste
- Place cactus and a piece of 1/4 onion in a large pot. Cover with water and add salt to taste.1 lb prickly pear cactus pads, thorns removed, rinsed and cut into cubes (~ 4 cups cut up), 3/4 medium onion, divided
- Bring the mixture to a boil, partially covered, and cook the cactus until fork-tender, about 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the onion, and drain the cactus. Rinse thoroughly under running water to stop the cooking and remove the viscous liquid from the cactus.
- Combine the cactus, tomatoes, chopped onion, and cilantro or oregano (if using) in a bowl. Mix thoroughly.1 lb prickly pear cactus pads, thorns removed, rinsed and cut into cubes (~ 4 cups cut up), 3 medium Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced, 3/4 medium onion, divided, chopped cilantro or dried oregano to taste (optional)
- Add in lime juice and salt to taste. Mix againjuice of 1 lime, Salt to taste
- Allow this to cool to room temperature and serve.
- You can use whatever color onion you have on hand, or mix and match. I personally like the look and taste of red onion in the salad, but many cooks in Mexico use white onions.