The Nopal as Food

The Opuntia species of cactus, also commonly called the Prickly Pear, is another seemingly hostile plant (along with the maguey) that despite its thorny exterior is a source of both food and medicine. Both its leaves (botanically known as cladodes) and fruits, called “tunas” are eaten on a daily basis in Mexico. As a cactus it must be treated carefully during preparation. They all carry spines of some variety, some are as fine as fibreglass threads and some are large enough to do serious damage. You can use leather gloves or tongs to aid in harvesting.

Mature fruiting nopal    

This shows the ideal size of nopal to harvest for eating. They become very fibrous when large.

Harvest the leaves by cutting them away from the mother plant very close to where they are attached. Do not leave too much leaf attached or cut too deeply into the cactus as it may cause disease in the plant. Remove the spines with a small knife. Try not to cut too deeply or remove too much skin. When harvesting the nopal it is best to collect them early in the morning before the sun has warmed up the cladodes. This will keep them fresher for longer. Once the sun has warmed them up they will not last the day without being refrigerated. The flavour of the nopal also seems to be altered the later they are picked. Freshly picked in the morning seems to be the best.

Carefully remove the spines along the edges.

To use gloves or not?? This is an interesting question. The spines of the nopal can be so thin as to be almost invisible. They are easier to remove from your skin with sticky tape than tweezers but there will always be some recalcitrant ones that you will find immediately when they touch something. Gloves are often recommended when cleaning nopales but the spines will stick in the gloves and may remain long enough to contaminate your cleaned nopales or cutting board/knife. With a little care and practise you will quickly gain the required dexterity. I do have to admit though that there is a lingering fear of swallowing a neck full of these nasty little beggars.

Now you can cut the nopal according to the needs of the recipe. When cut into smaller pieces like this they are often referred to as nopalitos.

Once your nopalitos have been prepared you can cook them by placing them in boiling water until they are tender (approx. 8-10 minutes). Once cooled you can use them in your recipe. Nopales exude a slimy/sticky/gummy texture, much like okra, when cooked. You can sprinkle them with salt and let them rest for 15 minutes before cooking, just remove any slime before they go into the cooking water. You can also use the husks of tomate verde (1) by placing them in the cooking water with the nopales to help lessen the slime. Water which has had these husks boiled in it has also been used to clabber milk to produce queso fresco.

  1. tomate verde – often called tomatillo or husk tomato.
The tomatillo plant – Physalis ixocarpa
and its fruit

This was the very first meal I ate upon arrival in el D.F. (1)

  1. El Distrito Federal, the centre of the capital of Mexico , Mexico City

I arrived at the Hotel Catedral in México City late in the evening and was famished. I wanted to eat something “Mexican” for my very first meal and was worried that a hotel might not be the best place to find it. I chose the Mixtec chicken breast. It was a thin fillet of chicken which had been placed atop a barbequed nopal “leaf” and bathed in adobo sauce and was a revelation. Up to this point I had only ever eaten jarred nopalitos and they in no way compared to this dish.  The adobo was dark and rich and carried a complexity of chile that just reinforced the feeling that I was in the right place. This was an appropriate beginning to my adventures in México.

Menu at Hotel Catedral restaurant, Mexico City, circa 2009  

Nopales Asados (Grilled Nopal Cactus)


  • 12 cactus pads (nopales)
  • Olive oil


  1. Prepare the nopales by removing the thorns and cutting out any blemishes
  2. rinse well with clean water and dry
  3. brush the cactus pads lightly with olive oil and grill over a medium/hot bed of charoal, turning occasionally, until softened and lightly charred (4 or 5 minutes)

Nopalitos with tomato and onion (serves 4)

(courtesy of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)


  • 1 pound (500g) of nopalitos (cactus stems without thorns, clean and chopped),
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil,
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced,
  • ½ purple onion cut into large pieces,
  • 1 jalapeño pepper without stem or seeds and chopped,
  • ½ tomato cut into large pieces,
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin (or to taste)
  • salt and pepper to taste.


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat (enough to cover the bottom of the pan). Add purple onion, garlic and jalapeño pepper.
  2. Saute, stirring from time to time.
  3. add the nopalitos and cook for about 15 minutes.
  4. Add the cut tomato and cumin and let it simmer until the vegetables are cooked.
  5. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately with corn tortillas. (Amounts for four people)
Nopal growing in the ruins of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City

Nopales Rellenos (Stuffed and grilled nopales)


  • 1 / 4 white onion (finely sliced)
  • 12 nopal pads (pencas) about the size of your hand
  • 1 bunch squash blossoms
  • 100 grams Queso Oaxaca (substitute with Mozzarella cheese)
  • 1 sprig of epazote
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (finely sliced)
  • salt to taste
  • dried oregano (Mexican if you can get it)
  • toothpicks


  1. Remove the petals (corollas) of the Squash blossoms, take each flower from the corolla and turn the stem to detach it with everything and pistil. Reserve the corollas and cut them into slices.

2. Prepare the pencas by removing the prickles. Rinse with clean water and pat dry.
3. Place some shredded Oaxaca cheese on a prickly pear penca, add some squash blossoms, sliced jalapeno, onion and epazote. Season with salt and put another prickly pear cactus on top to form a sandwich.
4. Secure with toothpicks so that they do not fall apart when cooking.
5. Put to roast them on the grill (or comal) until lightly charred on each side and the cheese begins to melt (should only take a couple of minutes).
6. Remove them from the grill and serve with a pinch of dried oregano sprinkled on top.


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