The spiny pads of the Opuntia cactus plant are a true Mexican superfood.

The spiny flat pads of the Nopal cactus plant probably don’t have most people thinking about recipes, traditions, or nutrition. But nopales have a long history in Mexican cuisine and have recently gained popularity throughout the world due to their nutritional value.

Depending on the region, the cactus may be called tuna, prickly-pear, nopal, paddle cactus, or cactus figs. The scientific name for the genus is Opuntia – and nearly all types of Opuntia are edible. Nopales are the flat paddles of the cactus and tunas, or prickly-pears, are the fruit. The cacti grow throughout Mexico and have long been used as an important part of Mexican cuisine. So important is the nopal to Mexican history that it is pictured on the country’s flag, where the coat of arms displays an eagle perched upon the prickly-pear cactus.

Nopales have become prized world-wide because of their amazing nutritional properties. For people with diabetes, the addition of nopales to the diet may lower blood glucose. Additionally, studies have shown that the regular consumption of nopales leads to a reduction in LDL cholesterol. And for vegetarians who need to have higher awareness of getting amino acids, nopales contain 17 amino acids (including 8 essential amino acids)! The cactus pads are also packed with vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Because of the amazing nutritional profile of the nopal, even those who don’t live in Mexico or areas with fresh nopales available can find them in canned or powdered dehydrated forms.

Lucky for cooks, the sharp spines are removed by expert hands before being sold in the market. Photo by Brian Fey

Buying and Preparation
Depending on location, nopales may be available in fresh form. Like most foods, fresh is definitely preferable! In the Southwest states of the USA nopales are easy to grow and gaining popularity. In areas with a high Latino population, imported nopales may be available. And of course, in Mexico, one can find nopales in any street market. Canned nopales are a fine substitute if fresh cactus pads are not available.

Some cooks are turned off of nopales because of the slimy texture, similar to that of okra, produced when the cactus is cooked or chopped. In Mexico, cooks have developed a variety of techniques to separate the sap from the cactus before serving. The addition of absorbing agents including avocado leaves, tomatillo husks, or a chunk of onion can reduce the amount of baba de nopal – cactus slime – in the final dish. Other cooks rinse the nopales several times during the cooking process (though also rinsing away a lot of the great nutrition!). And still others ignore the slime, embracing it as a part of the dish.

Research credit : Hub pages  Nutritional & Food history