Nopal (from the Nahuatl word nohpalli /noʔˈpalːi/ for the pads) (also known as the Prickly Pear cactus) is from the Opuntia family, subfamily Opuntioideae. There are approximately one hundred and fourteen known species endemic to Mexico. They are particularly common in their native Mexico where the plant is a common ingredient in numerous Mexican cuisine dishes in which it can be eaten raw or cooked. It can be used in marmalades, soups stews and salads, as well as being used for traditional medicine or as fodder for animals. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica, although the pads of almost all Opuntia species are edible. The other part of the nopal cactus that is edible is the fruit called the tuna or more commonly known in English as Prickly Pear.
Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico. In more recent years, bottled or canned versions are available mostly for export. Less often dried versions are available. Used to prepare nopalitos, they have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. In most recipes, the mucilaginous liquid they contain is sometimes included in the cooking. They are at their most tender and juicy in the spring.
Nopales are most commonly used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), carne con nopales (meat with nopal), tacos de nopales, or simply on their own or in salads with queso panela (panela cheese). Candied nopal is called acitróne. Nopales have also grown to be an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine and in Tejano culture (Texas).
Per US cup serving, nopal fruit provides 13% of the Daily Value for vitamin C and the minerals magnesium (11%) and calcium (14%), and is an excellent source of manganese (20%), with nutrient content improving as the plant matures. Its calcium may not be biologically available because it is present as calcium oxalate, a non-absorbable complex in the intestine.
Research for potential health effects
Dietary nopales is under preliminary research for how it may affect the glycemic index and possibly be useful in diabetes management. In rat studies, indicaxanthin, a betalain extract contributing to the red pigmentation of mature prickly pear, had anti-inflammatory properties.
The nopal cactus grows extensively throughout Mexico, being especially abundant in the central Mexican arid and semi arid regions. In Mexico there is over three million ha of land used to cultivate nopal. There are three typical ways to cultivate nopal cacti, commercial plantations, family farms and gardens, or in the wild. The main use for cultivated nopal is for feed for livestock with one hundred and fifty thousand hectares designated to that purpose. After that approximately fifty-seven thousand hectares are used to produce prickly pear fruit, ten thousand five hundred hectares for nopalito production, and one hundred hectares to cochineal production. In 1996 there were twenty thousand three hundred tuna farmers as well as around eight thousand nopalito farmers with all of the people involved in the processing industries and in cochineal production; employing a significant number of the Mexican population. Nopal is grown in eighteen of the Mexican states with seventy-four percent in the Distrito Federal, with an annual yield of fifty-eight thousand tons of both the tuna and the nopalitos. The farming of nopal provides many subsistence communities with employment, food, income, and allows them to remain on their land. Detection of the cactus-eating moth Cactoblastis cactorum in Mexico in 2006 caused anxiety among the country's phytosanitary authorities, as this insect can be potentially devastating for the cactus industry.
Edible Leaf Cycle
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- Thorny Mexican food staple gains fame as folk cure by Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters (Mon Apr 16, 2007 10:34 AM ET)
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- Use Of The Latin Food Staple Nopales: The Prickly Pear Cactus
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- Cactus-eating moth threatens favorite Mexican food (Mon Feb 19, 2007)