For centuries, the people of Mexico have used the flat leaves (or pads) of the prickly pear cactus as a food staple. The pads, called nopales, come from the family of cactus known as Opuntia ficus-indica and are an economically important source of income throughout Mexico.
The term nopales refers to the pads or leaves of the prickly pear cactus. Grown mostly in the arid regions of Mexico and South America, prickly pears are grown in large farms as well as most family farms. When harvesting, thick gloves are worn and then a knife or vegetable peeler are used to remove the spines before consumption.
There are many ways to prepare the nopales pads. The most common way is to skin the pads and scramble the flesh with scrambled eggs and diced jalapeños. They can also be grilled, sautéed, or used raw or cooked in salads. Grilled is a great way to enjoy the nopales, as they take on the flavor of the wood they are being grilled over.
Not only are nopales delicious to eat, they also have many health benefits, being chock-full of minerals, vitamins and anti-inflammatory agents. They are also full of fiber, low calorie and affordable!
Some of the known and researched health benefits of nopales include helping people with type 2 diabetes, help in fighting and prevention of cancer cells, soothing the digestive tract and helping to reduce hangover symptoms.
Studies from the American Diabetes Association have found that individuals who consume nopales mixed with proper portions of protein and fat help reduce glucose concentration after eating a meal that has nopales in it. In addition, they are high in fiber, further reducing glucose concentrations.
Cancer Fighting and Prevention:
Nopales are rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, and they are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. “Nopales contains flavonoids and phenolics, which are phytochemicals found in many of the plants we use for medicinal purposes,” Dr. Jonathan Stegall, an integrative cancer treatment specialist in Atlanta Georgia. He added: “These phytochemicals give cactus leaf its antioxidant properties.”
Because nopales contain both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers, water is rapidly absorbed and helps to move food quickly through the digestive tract and throughout the elimination tract as well. This process helps to keep the colon clean and can help to dilute the concentration of potential carcinogens.
Every once in awhile, we may over-indulge in alcohol and because of the high vitamin and mineral content along with anti-inflammatory properties, eating either nopales or ingesting prickly pear cactus extract before consuming alcoholic beverages can reduce hangover symptoms by as much as 50%.
In a blind study where half of the participants used the extract and half used a placebo, the participants that used the extract experienced the greatest relief. Researchers believe that this health benefit is due to the anti-inflammatory properties from the prickly pear. Please don’t use this as a reason to over-indulge, however!
Ready to try some nopales?
Check out this Nopales Salad that is one of my favorites and I make often living here in Baja Mexico!
Prep Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes Servings: 4
1 Tbs olive oil
1 garlic clove
2-3 nopal pads, cleaned and diced
1 small fresh jalapeno or 1/4 cup of chopped poblano pepper
1/8 cup of chopped sweet white onion
1 ripe tomato, diced
2 tsp finely diced cilantro
2 green onions, sliced
Crumble of feta cheese
1 Tbs white vinegar
1 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/8 tsp dijon mustard
Salt & Pepper
In a frying pan, gently heat the olive oil and stir in the garlic on low heat until fragrant. Stir in the nopales, onion, and peppers, and sauté about 10 minutes. The nopales pads will put off a sticky substance that will soon cook off.
Whisk together the salad dressing ingredients and toss over the warm nopales mixture. Add the tomatoes and green onions. Toss well. Serve the salad with sprinkles of cilantro and the crumbled feta cheese.
Voila! You now have a wonderful ethnic salad full of highly nutritious nopales! Bon Appetit!