Nopales (Nopalitos)

large nopal cactus with fruit

Nopales History

The cactus is most likely a native to Mexico. It is has been noted that the Nopales was grown and eaten as a vegetable in Central Mexico, since before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish explorers took the plant back to Spain and the plant spread throughout North Africa with the Moors. The plant is currently grown throughout Mexico as well as parts of the United States and in many areas of the Mediterranean. 

nopalesnopales paddles, spines removed, in market

What Is It?

The plant is the genus Opuntia from the Cactaceae family, or what is commonly known as the Prickly Pear Cactus. Nopal means cactus in Spanish and Nopales is term for "cactus stem". The term Nopalitos refers to the pads once they are cut up and prepared for eating. There are two food crops derived from the prickly pear cactus. One is the "nopalitos" which are the cactus pads and the other crop is the prickly "pear" or fruit of the cactus.

How To Harvest And Prepare Noaples (Nopalitos)

Commercially two sizes of nopales pads are harvested which is small, (less than 10 cm long) or (medium less than 20 cm, about 100g). The Nopales leaf pads are usually harvested between spring and the end of summer. Select thin pads no longer than 20cm or 8 inches. Make sure to wear heavy gloves to harvest the pads yourself. The pad will snap off easily or you can use a large knife to sever the stem. Beware, there are large and fine thorns so be sure to keep your hands protected. To prepare the pads remove the thorns and the "eyes" with a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife or this new gadget designed just for spine removal. Wash the pads well with cool water and peel or trim off any blemished or discolored areas. Slice the pads in long slices or in pieces or leave whole depending on the dish you will prepare.

How To Eat Nopales

nopalitos in the marketNopales is a vegetable that can be eaten grilled or boiled. Over cooking may give them a slightly "slimy" texture you may want to avoid. Frequently the nopales are added to eggs, or as a vegetable in soups, chilies or a filling in a tortilla.

The best preparation we have tried is to prepare the nopal leaves (remove spines) then grill over hot coals till tender and slightly browned. Then slice into nopalitos strips and toss with a squeeze of lime and a little bit of olive oil. They are delicious.  There is also a local restaurant that grills portobello mushrooms along with the nopales and slices both and serves them tossed together.

How To Store Nopales

You may store fresh (not wrinkled) nopales refrigerated, tightly wrapped, for up to two weeks.

Where To Buy

It is best to purchase fresh nopales at a Mexican market. See our handy tool (nopal products) this page for preparing nopales. 

Nopalitos are normally found in cans or jars in any grocery store that sells Mexican foods. Fresh nopalitos are available in Mexican market

Nopales Prep Tools

Necessity is once again the mother of invention.  This handy tool takes the pain out of cactus thorn removal.

nopales knife with grip

nopales knife  - effortlessly removes thorns from nopal (cactus) paddles
To use, you hold the cactus paddle, flat on a cutting board using a pair of tongs then scrape the blade along the surface of the paddle.  Read More >>

Basic Cooking Method

  • Nopales pads, washed and prepared
  • salt

Put the prepared and cut up pieces in a pot with boiling, salted water. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes without a lid. When the leaf-pads are cooked, pour off the water and then rinse with cold water. The nopalitos can now be used in salads, stews or as a vegetable.

Nopalitos Recipes

Here are some great recipes that use nopalitos:

Ensalada de Nopalitos (Cactus Salad)
A simple recipe for nopalitos salad with tomatoes, onion, cilantro and oregano.
Ensalada de Nopales y Camarones (Salad of Cactus and Shrimp)
Recipe features cactus paddles, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeno peppers, onions and shrimp.
Ensalada de Nopalitos With Chiles And Avocado
Nopalitos (sliced cactus paddles) are made into a salad with onions, cheese, cilantro, chiles and avocado.
Nopalitos and Beef Chili
Recipe uses beef chuck, tomatillos, tomato paste, nopalitos (cactus paddles) and serrano chiles.
Nopalitos Tacos(Tacos de Nopalitos)
Simple tacos made with potato, refried beans and nopalitos (cactus) strips.
Nopalitos and Pork Stew
A thick stew made with fresh nopales (catcus paddles) pork loin, tomatoes and corn.
Dona Maria Red Snapper and Nopalitos in Cilantro Sauce
Recipe includes nopalitos, snapper, cilantro, olive oil and lemon.
Mixiote of Shrimp and Nopales
Shrimp marinated in Adobo Recado and grilled in mixiote leaves

Nutrition Information For Nopales (Nopalitos)

Serving Size
1 cup, sliced
 
Calories
14
Calories from Fat
0
 
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 0g
0%
Saturated Fat 0g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 18mg
0%
Potassium
221g
10%
Total Carbohydrate 3g
0%
Dietary Fiber 2g
10%
Sugars 1g
Protein 1g
0%
 
Vitamin A  0% Vitamin C  0%
Calcium  0% Iron  0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Medicinal Uses

An excerpt from Medicinal Use Of The Latin Food Staple Nopales: The Prickly Pear Cactus By Miguel Angel Gutierrez

"The nopal has been used as a medicinal plant and is a hallmark vegetable in the Latin American diet. Various studies have demonstrated Opuntia’s ability to affect blood glucose and hypercholesterolemia. The intake of prickly pear pectin decreases plasma LDL levels, increases expression of apolipoprotein receptor expression, increases hepatic LDL turnover, and affects cholesterol homeostasis in guinea pigs. Prickly pear pectin, however does not affect absorption of cholesterol in guinea pigs. The prickly pear cactus demonstrates the ability to decrease blood glucose levels as well the hyperglycemic peak during glucose tolerance testing. In addition, Opuntia has demonstrated the ability to control experimentally induced diabetes. Similar studies, along with domestic surveys have prompted international evaluation of the prickly pear cactus to determine its ability to regulate glucose utilization. Currently, homeopathic industries have begun to incorporate opuntia into supplements intended to help regulate plasma glucose levels."

Nopales Nutrition Information

nopales nutrition facts

View Complete Nutritional Facts For Nopales>>

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.