The word nopal
comes from the Nahuatl nopalli
, and designates cacti with flat, paddle-shaped leaves.
nopal varieties belong to the cacti family, genus Opuntia
, which originated in the Americas. Mexico is home to 140 of 250 Western Hemisphere species; of those 140, a mere four have been domesticated for human consumption.
first only the shoots were consumed as food, but over time entire plants were domesticated. The most widely-cultivated species in Mexico is Opundia ficus indica
has flat, paddle-shaped stems or leaves covered in small stiff hairs called glochidia
(i.e., thorns); grows in various shades of green; and if the plant is young, its leaves give the appearance of scales; at bottom there is a woody stem that can give the plant the appearance of a tree. It features colorful flowers that are eaten in soups and stews, as well as medium-sized fruits called tunas
(prickly pears) that may or may not have thorns, and are characterized by sweet, fleshy meat, white or colored, that abounds in small, hard seeds. Prickly pears are consumed fresh as a dessert or as a fresh-fruit ade, as sorbets, popsicles, and candied (as a means of extending their seasonality).
paddles are prepared as smoothies; roasted, they stand alone or come in tacos; cooked, they become salads or marinades, soups or stews with sauces. They can be used as filling for antojitos
or as a garnish; and they can be preserved by being candied or canned.
cactus requires almost no upkeep; they are exceedingly tolerant of nutrient-poor soils and poor irrigation. Thus they survive both in the desert and in the snow. They are found in Mexico’s arid and semiarid regions and take five years to reach productive age; cacti produce vegetables twice a year; fruit once a year. They are an importance presence in proximity to cultivated fields because they conserve soil moisture and fertility.
are rich in water, fiber, calcium and potassium. Their fiber content lowers cholesterol concentrations, triglycerides and blood glucose; nopal
is a raw material in cosmetics and medicinal products.
production and consumption as a vegetable is concentrated in the Central Highlands (Mexico City is the largest producer, followed by Morelos and Mexico State). High season is from March to November.
pear production and consumption is concentrated in the Central Highlands (Guanajuato, Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Durango). High season is from July to September.
) derives its name from the Nahuatl xoconochtli
, “sour” and “nochtli
,” prickly pear, also known as joconostle
9 and 15 varieties grow in Mexico’s semi-desert areas; the most common are those known as cuaresmeño
(farmed) and burro
or white (which are wild). Paddles are too fibrous for human consumption; the fruits have a sour flavor, are small in size, contain less water and, as such, less glucose.
Xoconostle provides significant fiber, vitamins A, C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and copper to the human body.
Cuaresmeño xoconostle production and consumption is centered in the Central Highlands (San Luis Potosí, Mexico State, Hidalgo, Puebla and Querétaro and to a lesser extent, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and Guanajuato). Peak season is July to October.
Mexicans eat xoconostle in stews; roasted in spicy salsas or pico de gallo; candied or as a jam; in sweet, salty or chilied orejones; naturally dehydrated; and in liquor.