Did you know that eating cacti is beneficial for health?
Cacti are juicy, meaty, tasty, low in calories, and at the same time an important source of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. Nopal cacti are eaten roasted, boiled, pickled, scrambled, tacos, stews, soups, juices, or salads.
Of course, cacti are something that has been known since the oldest civilizations. In fact, the nopal has been a very important source of nutrition for the peoples of Mesoamerica for more than 12,000 years.
Surprisingly, this thorny food is one of the healthiest that can be included in our daily diet, as it is rich in vitamins and nutrients and provides many additional benefits.
Nopales (the shovel-shaped cactus leaf) is a staple food in Latin America that is mainly served with eggs and salads due to its health benefits.
As more people discover its great qualities, cactus foods and drinks are making an appearance in grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers’ markets around the world.
The opuntia cactus (its scientific name) or prickly pear is part of the cacti family with more than 200 species, native to the American continent.
You can find them from the southern USA to Patagonia, where they grow wild. It is also common to find them in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and North Africa, where they were introduced by the Spanish 500 years ago.
Nopal, the plant of life
Mexicans are at the forefront of edible cacti, they taste them in salads, as well as in candies, fruit, barbecues, or in juices.
In Mexico, nopal is a symbol, which you can see on the flag under the eagle that attacks the snake.
The chumba fig tree or nopal cactus has three different edible sections: the cladioli, shovels or stalks of the cactus (nopal), which would constitute the leaves, the flower petals, which can be added to salads; and the prickly pear or prickly pear, the fruit.
Mexicans eat the “leaves” or blades of nopaleras: thick green ovals no more than 30 cm long. Of course, like many cacti, they are covered in spines that must be removed with a knife.
However, in most supermarkets, they sell nopales already without thorns.
When cooked they have a flavor comparable to green beans and a texture similar to okra. Others say they have a nice lemon flavor and are slightly crunchy like bell peppers.
In Mexico, they also consume the water biznaga or the barrel cactus, a rounded and thick balloon-like cactus. Its scientific name is “echinocactus” (from the Latin ecchinus, sea urchin, because of its resemblance to it).
The acitrón is a crystallized candy from the biznaga cactus that is used to decorate the roscón de reyes.
Of the rest of the cacti, only the fruits are usually consumed. Other succulent plants can also be edible such as the blue agave (with which tequila is made) or the maguey with which pulque or mezcal are made.
Rich in phytonutrients, they help reduce cholesterol and sugar levels. Its satiating fiber and gelatin-like pectin capture and remove cholesterol from the blood while slowing the digestion of carbohydrates, helping prevent blood sugar spikes and diabetes.
In addition, it provides calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, iron, vitamins C, A, iron, and calcium.
In 2007, French researchers tested the impact of dehydrated cactus leaves on 68 patients suffering from metabolic syndrome. After four weeks, “bad cholesterol” and triglyceride levels decreased, while “good cholesterol” increased.
The plant was also found to reduce the risks associated with heart problems.
The cactus also contains phenolics and flavonoids, two compounds with antioxidant properties that help protect healthy cells from free radical damage linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
In the June 2009 issue of “Plant Food for Human Nutrition,” it was claimed that phytochemical compounds in prickly pear slowed the growth of colon, liver, breast, and prostate cancer cells without negatively impacting healthy cells.
Cactus provides 16 calories per 100 g of intake, making it food to consider in diets to reduce weight. Cacti are said to possess anti-inflammatory properties that are beneficial to the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal tract, and arteries.
It has been found to contain quercetin, a bioflavonoid that neutralizes cell-damaging compounds and serves as a pain reliever due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Do you dare to try the nopal?
Perhaps the most important thing is to buy them without thorns since removing them can be a real nightmare.
The small blades of the nopal are the most succulent, with a delicate flavor and with fewer thorns. It is better to choose thin, firm blades. If they are soft, cracked, or shriveled, they are too old.
Shovels are often sold whole or cut into strips or cubes and packaged for convenience.
Fresh edible cacti can be refrigerated for up to a week if well wrapped in plastic. The cactus is available in specialized and organic stores in the form of slices and cubes or juices, jam, and canned to consume as needed.
There are various ways to prepare cacti so that they are not bland when eaten.
At first, it may seem intimidating, but it is easier than it seems. The shovels or pencas must be washed well, then they can be cut and boiled or grilled and then added to quesadillas, salsas, fajitas, salads, or served as a side dish.
They can also be eaten raw, although the bitter taste may not excite everyone.
The nopal shovels go well with the flavor of cheese, chiles, cilantro, corn, eggs, lemon, lime, onions, oregano, salsa, chives, sweet peppers, tomato, tortillas, and tropical fruits.
We cut the cactus into cubes and boil it in a copper pot with a little water and onion. The copper keeps the cactus green after cooking, otherwise, it turns a dull gray.
Let it simmer for about 40 minutes. Then drain it and let it cool.
One idea is to pour it into a salad bowl and season it with salt and oregano. We add the chopped onion, the sliced tomatoes, pieces of fresh cheese, and slices of avocado, and finally, we sprinkle it with a little olive oil.
Those who want a more Mexican touch can add jalapeño peppers and cilantro.
The best way to remove the stickiness is to grill it for a crispy-tender texture with a drizzle of olive oil and a twist of lemon.
And if you still want to experiment with nopal, we suggest a couple of recipes:
Scrambled eggs with nopales
- 1 or 2 cactus shovels
- 8 eggs
- 100 gr of cheese (of our choice)
- salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the cubed shovels in a small amount of butter for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set it aside.
Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the grated cheese and the sautéed cactus pieces. Pour the egg mixture into a pan and stir while adding salt and pepper to taste.
Stuffed nopales (stuffed cactus)
- 12 tender cactus shovels
- 750 ml of water
- 6 slices of manchego cheese
- 6 slices of ham
- 40 grams onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 1 clove garlic
- Salt to taste
- 100 grams of flour
- 4 eggs (yolk and white separated)
- 300 ml vegetable or olive oil
- 350 grams of tomato sauce
The shovels are boiled in the water with garlic, onion, and salt. We drain them. In each of the 6, place a slice of cheese, ham, and a little onion. We cover it with another shovel and fix them with toothpicks and wrap them with flour.
Beat the egg whites with the salt for 7 minutes or until they double in size, add the yolks and continue for 1 more minute. Heat the oil in a frying pan, dip the fillings into the egg batter and fry until golden brown on both sides.
Drain them on kitchen paper. We serve it with tomato sauce on top.