Eat cactus? For people living in Mexico and the Southwest, the answer is a resounding yes. Nopal, also known as the prickly pear cactus, grows plentifully there and its health benefits and versatility have made it a popular household ingredient.
Nopal is actually the pad of the prickly pear cactus. The green and spiky cactus produces fruit sometime between spring and summer. The flesh of the cactus has a citrusy flavor and is used in dishes throughout Mexico and the Southwest region of the U.S., where it’s sautéed, fried and roasted. Nopal is high in fiber and antioxidants and, according to the Mayo Clinic, has been show in some studies to decrease blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. It’s also believed to be a hangover "cure" when juiced.
“I love some nopales,” Maria Covarrubias, who owns hot sauce company Cien Chiles, told TODAY Food. Covarrubias grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, where every household prepares nopales differently, she said.
Covarrubias prefers to buy fresh nopal — with the spikes already removed, but you can chop them off — although you can also find it in cans. She grew up eating it in a salad similar to pico de gallo with lime juice, tomatoes and onion.
Hector Saldivar, founder of grain-free tortilla and chip brand Tia Lupita, grew up eating nopales daily. “My mom would chop nopales in little cubes and mix them with eggs for breakfast,” Saldivar told TODAY. “My fondest memory was consuming them as a sweet snack. Mexican candy shops would blend nopales with prunes, apricots, guava, quince and tamarind to make a paste sprinkled with chile powder.”
If you’re new to cooking with nopales, it should be noted that they release a slime (similar to okra) when they’re heated. Boiling or sautéing the nopales will help extract the slime, said Covarrubias, and it’ll cook down or get drained off.
In addition to cooking with cactus, there are new food products using the prickly plant, too, like Vanessa Hudgens’s new cactus water. Saldivar began offering cactus products in 2019 at Tia Lupita. It means a lot to him, he said, to incorporate the ingredient that he grew up eating. “Not only is it an opportunity to share my roots, traditions and culture, but also the chance to introduce an ingredient that can make a good impact to our health sustainability,” said Saldivar.
In fact, Regina Trillo, founder of chip brand Nemi, grew up in Mexico City and considers cactus to be “the most exquisite representation of Mexico.” First, there’s the fact that the cactus itself is on the Mexican flag and strongly associated with Aztec mythology. Then, there’s the fact that it’s incredibly resilient. “That resiliency to me, talks a lot about Mexican culture. Not only in Mexico, but also when it comes to immigration,” said Trillo, who used to work in immigration law. “It's that resiliency through heat, without water, through harsh conditions, we will thrive. We will continue growing. We will figure it out.”
From chips to beverages, here are five succulent treats to try:
Whether or not you eat a grain-free diet, Tia Lupita’s cactus tortillas are worth a try.
Made from a blend of cactus, cassava and okra flours, they’re relatively low in carbs yet somehow still soft like the flour tortillas so many people love. Tia Lupita also has a variety of cactus of chips in flavors like sea salt and chipotle if you can't get enough.
What do you do when you can’t eat chips due to dietary restrictions? If you’re Regina Trillo, you combine your love of chips with your love of cactus. The result is Nemi, deliciously crunchy stick-shaped chips that come in flavors like Spirulina Lime and Chili Turmeric. There’s also a churro-flavored chip if you have a sweet tooth.
OK, you can’t eat soap (please don't eat soap!), but it’s fair to think of Nopalera’s soap as a treat for your hands. Nopalera is Sandra Velasquez’s homage to her Mexican culture. The daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up near the border of Mexico in California, Velasquez ate nopal as a kid but also picked up on the fact that it’s great for your skin. Made with cactus, shea butter and lemongrass oil, this soap is bright and feels good.
It’s not just the body of the prickly pear cactus that’s edible, but the prickly pear itself, too. True Nopal, which was founded in 2013, purees the prickly pear fruit and combines it with water and other flavors (like pineapple and lime) for a drink that’s high in electrolytes and antioxidants and relatively low in sugar.
For another hydrating option, consider Pricklee. Pricklee is the brainchild of five friends that are also pharmacists. They loved how thirst-quenching cactus water is but also how sustainable it is, too. Pricklee’s waters are made with prickly pear puree and come in three antioxidant-packed flavors including Prickly Pear, Mango Ginger and Strawberry Hibiscus.