Nopales In Food: Benefits/Uses

Posted by Sam Gomez on

According to Mexican folklore, while the Aztecs were looking for a suitable land to begin building their empire on, the god Huitzilopochtli told them to look for a land where the ground was made of grain, and where an eagle perched on a green, prickly cactus was devouring a vicious snake. This captivating site was to become a national symbol displayed on what is now Mexico's flag. Upon the site, the Aztecs built their first temple, and since then the nopal cactus has for centuries been revered as a sacred, and medicinal plant, gathering families together, and becoming a staple in Mexican cuisine for generations to come. 


Like Mexico’s people, nopales are incredibly resilient. With the ability to grow abundantly on coastlines to 4,700 meters above sea level. Nopales only require water and regular brushing to prevent the spread of cochineal plagues. Cochineal is a parasite that lives on cactuses, if not maintained properly mold may begin to develop which can dry out the nopal cactus. Cochineal is a friend and a foe, as it's also used as a natural red dye for traditional wool goods. 


Nopales have a slimy composition once cut into, similar to aloe vera. This substance contains properties that kill harmful bacteria, heal wounds, reduce damage caused by sun exposure, and can aid in diminishing the appearance of scars.


Given the purpose of each product, Nopalera uses different parts of the Nopal cactus to benefit, nourish, and maintain the skin. Nopalera’s Original Moisturizing Botanical Bar and Nopalera’s Flor de Mayo Moisturizing Botanical Bar, contain Nopal oil. Derived from the cactus fruit, it’s rich in antioxidants, antibacterial properties as well as Vitamin E and K. It's also been shown to be a magnificent carrier oil successfully delivering high amounts of nutrients into the skin.


In Nopalera’s Cactus Soaps and Cactus Flower Exfoliants, contain the cactus pad, also known as la penca, which is used to delicately exfoliate and renew the skin.


With this, nopales are also rich in fiber, anti-inflammatory antioxidants, and Vitamin C. As well as a variety of minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Nopales have antiviral properties, and the ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Nopales are made up of 95% water. Making them incredibly hydrating. With research, we can identify the abundance of electrolytes present in the Nopales cactus water, which has been revered to cure hangovers prior to drinking alcohol. While everyone may not be keen on eating nopales’ slimy composition, traditional recipes bring the diced nopales to a boil to reduce their slimy texture. Then it can be poured onto a salad to enjoy or seasoned and sautéed and added into a taco.


A traditional and nostalgic nopal recipe that is quick yet versatile to make is un Ensalada de Nopal.


For this recipe you will need:


White onions

Red tomatoes 

Cilantro or parsley 

Fresh firm cheese

Olive oil

Wine vinegar 

Pepper and salt


Rinse and remove the thorns from the nopales, cut them into squares, and add them into a pot with a handful of cilantro and half an onion quarterly chopped. There is no need to add water because as soon as you start to heat up the mixture, the Nopal begins to release its own water. After fifteen minutes, remove the mixture from the heat, and let it cool down. Then chop the other half of the white onion into rings, along with diced red tomatoes, a handful of fresh parsley, and diced cheese. Then you can add in your cooked nopales. For the salad dressing mix in some olive oil, wine vinegar, pepper, and a pinch of salt all according to your taste. And mix well! You can enjoy this as a side dish with a meal or you can add it to a taco with carne asada y con una salsita. Y se queda delicioso.


Another cozy and nostalgic nopal dish is Sopa de Nopal. A traditional meal often prepared during Semana Santa, as part of the Holy Week Lent diet that avoids dishes containing meat. The thorns on the nopales and the role of removing them have significant symbolism in the remembrance of the resurrection during the Easter Holiday.


For this recipe you will need:

2 pounds or a kilo of nopales

3 tomatoes

4 garlic cloves

1/4 onion

4 avocado leaves

1 tablespoon of cumin

Salt to taste

100 gr or 11/2 ounces of shrimp

3 small spoonfuls of corn oil

6 cups of water

3 green chiles (optional)


Again, pour your diced nopales into a pot, with a pinch of salt. On low heat, allow the nopales to release their own water to get rid of their slimy composition. Add corn oil to another pot with 4 crushed garlic cloves along with your chopped onions and satué. Go ahead and have a teaspoon of cumin along with your chopped tomatoes, and continue satuéing. Although optional, here you can add your green chiles in whole or diced. At this stage add your cooked and diced nopales along with the avocado leaves. Add your dried shrimp, satué a bit, and add your water, and let cook for a few minutes, and enjoy!


While avocado leaves are less known in Western cuisine, they have been stable in Mexican cuisine for centuries. Avocado leaves are incredibly nutrient-dense and rich in magnesium, calcium, zinc, and potassium. They are a great addition to add to a meal or in a snack with nopales. 


Another recipe that keeps a bit of the Nopales’ slimy composition comes after harvesting and removing the thorns from the cactus pad. Add a bit of oil to a grill or saucepan, placing them on low to medium heat for a few minutes on each side, with a bit of homemade salsa, and caramelized onions with corn or wheat tortilla. This is an easy, versatile snack to have.


Nopales have a significant economic presence in Mexico. In the Central de Abasto en Mercado Jamaica y La Merced, roughly 350,000 nopales are produced every year. Around 80% of the produced nopales are sold from this market, and the other 20% are given towards indirect exportation abroad to the United States, Japan, Spain, and Germany. 


For generations, nopales have been known to be Mexico's life-giving plant. Thriving in what could be a hostel, and barren land without them, relying on minimal water and maintenance and providing an abundance of nutrients in a single pad or fruit. It comes as no surprise that despite its humble origins, it has been essential in building an empire, becoming a national identity and a nostalgic essence that has lingered throughout Mexico's history, culture, and cuisine.


Written by Angelique Hechavarria

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