Prickly Pear Cactus - Nopal
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The genus Opuntia includes the prickly pear, bunny ears, and beaver tail cacti. It is also called cactus pear and Indian fig ("Figadindi" in Italian). You may have been intrigued by the seemingly erratic growth of the prickly pear cactus, with its pads protruding at all angles; or you may have avoided it because of its sharp, barbed spines and tiny stickers. Everyone, however, can appreciate the prickly pear's large but delicate and colorful blooms and the sweet, succulent fruit.
The Aztec Indians called the Nopal nochtli or nopalli
Nopal 2 Nopal Fruit Nopal 3 Nopal 4 Removing Spines Cooking Nopalitos 1
Cooking Nopalitos 2 Ready to Eat Nopalitos
Over a period of several weeks in late spring and early summer, each pad produces several three-to-four-inch wide flowers that bloom in an array of colors, depending on the variety, from subtle to brilliant tones of yellows and oranges, pinks and reds. When the blooms fade, the edible fruits form.
While the prickly pear cactus is native to the United States, Mexico, and South America, it grows well in many areas of the world, including Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean. In some areas of South Africa and Australia, it has become a notorious weed. It will grow at elevations ranging from sea level to 15,000 feet.
Like most plants that thrive in a wide variety of areas, the prickly pear is tolerant of varied soils, temperatures, and moisture levels. The plants grow best in a sunny position in well-drained sandy loam with some protection from cold winter winds. Plants benefit from applications of a balanced fertilizer during their spring-through-fall growing period and, with excellent drainage, can tolerate almost as much water as any other cultivated plant. They are, however, drought tolerant once established.
The sap from the pads can be used in first aid similar to the aloe vera plant. Simply cutoff a portion of a pad, crush it, and squeeze the juice onto a cut, burn, or bruise. The sap will soothe the wound. Ground or pureed young pads are used as a laxative and also as a remedy for Diabetes. According to Marita Cantwellde-Trejo, Extension Vegetable Postharvest Specialist at the University of California, Davis, the Mexican Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City is researching the hypoglycemic effect of cactus consumed by humans.
In Central Africa, the sap from the pads served as a mosquito repellent. In 1911, Burbank noted in Scientific American, that when spread on water, it smothers mosquito larvae, and the effect last's up to a year.
However, forbidding the spines, this cactus is definitely worth eating. The pads are "cladodes" or "nopales" when they're whole, and "nopalitos" when they're diced. They taste something like green beans. The fruits are called prickly pears, cactus pears, or "tunas".
Whether you add sliced or cubed pads to omelette's or gently urge the fruit from its stickery skin and eat it fresh or cooked into jelly, this cactus has much to offer. Even the seeds can be eaten in soups or dried and ground into flour. Recipes and entertaining and informative tips on preparation can be found in Joyce L. Tate's Cactus Cookbook, available from the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. Recipes range from appetizers, soups, and salads through entrees, vegetable dishes, and breads to desserts, beverages, and candies.
In Central Mexico, the pads have grown as a traditional vegetable since before the Spanish arrived. Today, the pads are available in this country throughout the year in specialty produce sections and at farmer's markets. The smaller young pads in the early spring are the most succulent, delicate in flavor, and have the fewest spines. Fresh pads are full of water and should be bright green and firm. To prepare the pad, simply hold its base and scrape the skin on both sides with a blunt knife until all the spines are removed. Then peel the pads and cut them into shoestring strips or dice them according to the needs of the recipe. They can be eaten raw in salads, boiled and fried like eggplant, pickled with spices, or cooked with shellfish, pork, chilies, tomatoes, eggs, coriander, garlic, and onions.
The flavor of a ripe prickly pear cactus fruit depends on the variety but include strawberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, figs, bananas, and citrus. You can eat them raw, at room temperature or chilled, and alone or with lemon juice. They can be cooked into jams and preserves or cooked down into a syrup as a base for jelly and candy ( the "cactus candy" in some Mexican food stores.) This syrup can be reduced even further into a dark red or black paste that is fermented into a potent alcoholic drink called "coloncha." The fruit pulp can be dried and ground into flour for baking into small sweet cakes, or stored for future use.
Individual taste preferences will dictate which varieties to choose for eating fresh and which for cooking. In Mexico alone, there are over 100 species with edible fruits. Sam Williams, a cactus enthusiast in Carmichael, California, says that while all the fleshy fruit kinds are edible and none are poisonous, only a few are palatable and even fewer taste really sweet. They range from juicy to dry and sweet to acid. Cantwell-de-Trejo says that the acidity and fibrousness of the fruits are called "xoconochtlis" and are used in certain traditional Mexican stews and other dishes.
Fruit size, shape, and color vary from small and round like a walnut to three inches long and two inches wide like a rounded cylinder. Skin and flesh come in a rainbow of colors ( white, green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and brown. White-skinned varieties are the most popular in Mexico, says Cantwell-de-Trejo, while the sweetest varieties generally available in this country have dark reddish-orange or purple skins and deep red-purple flesh. The fruit contains about one-half the amount of an orange. According to Cantwell-de-Trejo, this is its most important use in the diet of rural Mexicans.
The fruits ripen from early spring through late fall, depending on the variety. Those that are best for eating fresh ripen from September through November. Charlotte Glenn of Le Marche Seeds International in Dixon, California, who works extensively with gourmet vegetables, says that the perfect stage of ripeness of each fruit lasts only about a week, and the maximum shelf life of a fruit is only eight or nine days. Many of the fruits sold in California are imported from Mexico to extend the market season.
by Yvonne Savio
University of California, Davis
Published June 1989
The Mexican indians and and a lot of people who have tried them, including myself, will tell you that the Nopal Leaves or "Pencas" are delicious, furthermore, they are good for you also. Well enough, I'm getting hungry.
Nopal - Nopalitos - Prickly Pear Link
"Warning and Caution"
All Pencas (Cactus Pad or Leaf)come with Spines Be Careful
Nopal Properties Favored by Aztec's
Aztec's Method of Use
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