Eating cactus (or nopal in Spanish) is nothing new; its delicious properties are well understood. But the versatility of cactus as an ingredient is something you might not have realized, and it tastes great in a wide range of dishes. Indigenous people of the Southwest region of the United States and Mexican people have been enjoying cactus for a very long time. It’s used often in Mexican cuisine, and it’s about time it became a summertime staple for everyone.
Know which cactus to eat
Not every variety of cactus is edible, so before you go de-potting your succulents, it’s best to understand which are safe to consume. Matador explains that dragon fruit, prickly pear, barrel, cholla, and saguaro are all varieties of cacti that are safe to eat, whereas the Bolivian, peyote, and San Pedro cacti can all be dangerous, possibly causing severe vomiting.
None of that matters too much if you just plan on purchasing your cactus at the grocery store, which I recommend—preferably a store that carries many authentic Mexican products. Buy yourself some nopales from the produce section. Fresh nopales are a bright green and somewhat firm. But be careful, as most often the fresh paddles do not come with their pointy spines removed.
If you don’t feel like taking on the task of removing the spines from the fresh cactus paddles, you can also find cactus jarred and ready to go in that lovely “ethnic” aisle of the grocery store.
How to cook with cactus
I love any food with a Bubba Gump shrimp moment. You know, that scene in Forrest Gump where Bubba endlessly lists all the wonderful ways you can prepare and eat shrimp. Cactus has a similar laundry list of culinary uses.
You can grill it, fry it, stew it, juice it, chop it up, or eat it raw. And that’s not even all of its preparations, just the most common. Some of my personal favorites are a good cactus salad or nopales cooked up with some Mexican chorizo and eggs.
My favorite kind of cactus salad keeps things simple, requiring only that you chop and mix up a bunch of vegetables. To make a delicious nopal salad, you’ll first need to rinse off your chopped nopal, since they tend to be a bit slimy. Then, boil the nopal pieces and mix together with freshly sliced tomatoes, chopped onions, cilantro, onion powder, salt, and diced jalapeño if you enjoy spice. Thai Caliente has a fantastic recipe for this salad and recommends a squeeze of lime on top, which I am also in favor of.
For someone who hates the “prep” portion of cooking, I never mind putting in the work for a delicious cactus salad. The next time you’re at the grocery store, keep those slimy little nopal bits in mind, because they are an undercelebrated key to many ideal summer meals.