Prickly pear cactus, also called nopal or opuntia cactus, is a traditional food in Mexico as well as many Central/South American regions. The cactus fruit, also called cactus apple or even “tuna,” is edible and so are the green spiny parts of the plant.
There are hundreds of types of cacti, and only some of them are edible. The most common edible cactus is the prickly pear cactus and that’s what is being referred to if someone says they’re making nopales. ‘Prickly pear’ or ‘opuntia’ describe a few dozen species of edible cactus.
Nopales are also becoming increasingly common throughout the world and is used in North America as an ‘adventurous’ ingredient in new types of cuisine.
It’s also still prepared the traditional ways and eaten by itself or grilled on top of a lengua (cows tongue) taco.
So, what does nopal taste like? Cactus tastes like a mix of things you may already be familiar with, such as asparagus and green beans. It’s just a bit sour with a sticky yet crunchy texture.
Read on to hear our deep dive into what cactus tastes like and how you can use it to add an interesting twist to your meals.
Flavor And Texture
While the flavor of cactus is unique, it isn’t overwhelming. If you are curious about trying nopal but have been afraid the flavor may be too intense, just know the flavor of cactus is very mild and unintrusive.
Once you cut it open, the appearance of whole cactus will probably remind you of cucumber or okra. The outside is tough and the inside is pale and wet, with a thick liquid similar to okra.
The taste is also fairly similar. A mild ‘green’ taste like asparagus or okra with a little bit of sourness that is unique to nopal.
The texture of cactus is going to depend on how it’s prepared. It can be crunchy, gummy, soft, or meaty. Straight from the whole plant, cactus has a vegetable-like crispness to the bite with a gelatinous coating like tomato or okra.
One thing you should be prepared for in regards to texture is a bit of slime. Certain cooking techniques can reduce this, but for the most part the goo is simply part of nopal’s unique texture.
While the prickly pear cactus has multiple edible parts, the most commonly used is the pad. This is the beaver-tail-shaped flat piece growing off of the main body of the cactus. Because of its shape it’s the easiest to prepare.
Cactus can be eaten fresh or canned. The next section will go over the differences between the two. In terms of cooking with cactus, it’s important to know that canned cactus will have already been cleaned. With fresh cactus, you will need to do that yourself.
To clean fresh nopal, take a sharp knife or vegetable peeler and remove any spines still attached to the cactus pad.
Try to keep as much of the ‘peel’ as possible. It is perfectly safe to eat and full of nutrients. Then trim the thick base, and cut to the required size. We’ve included a video tutorial for you at the end of this article.
Raw cactus is often added to salads for a bit of zing and a little crunch. For this you would simply dice the de-spined cactus into ½ in square pieces and toss into your salad mix.
Although they aren’t crunchy, canned nopales can still add an interesting flavor element to any salad.
Small square pieces of cactus (raw or canned) can be added to soups to help add volume and also as a thickening agent. The ‘goo’ they excrete works similarly to okra in this way.
If you are going to serve the cactus by itself and want to avoid the slimy texture, you will need to rinse the food very thoroughly.
Another extremely common preparation of cactus, especially of the cactus pads in particular, is grilling. The pads are cleaned, cut to expose the soft center, and grilled just like you would grill any other vegetable. The process helps remove some of the ‘goo’, and the rest keeps the cactus from drying.
Fresh Vs Canned
As mentioned above, one of the main differences between fresh cactus and canned is that you will need to clean fresh cactus before it can be cooked. Otherwise, the spines will cause injury.
If you are going to use fresh cactus, it’s also important to know how to choose a good specimen. When you are shopping for fresh cactus pads, look for some that are soft without seeming wrinkly, limp, or wilted.
Plump flesh is a sign of freshness, and the softer pads will have a more pleasing texture. You can use the larger pads as well, but they can be a little bit stringy.
Canned cactus is usually less slimy than fresh. This is because it is pre-cooked when it undergoes the canning process and this gets a lot of the ‘goo’ out of the cactus meat. If you don’t like the ooze of fresh nopales, canned is certainly an easy option.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that along with all that ‘goo’ goes much of that nopal’s nutritional value.
Because so much goo escapes during the canning process, so do a lot of vitamins and minerals. If you are trying to add cactus into your diet for nutritional value, this may not be your first choice.
Is Cactus Good For You?
Cactus is very good for you! Provided you are eating the proper kind, of course.
Without proper training, we recommend never eating cacti from the wild. Nopales and their fruit offer a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The more purple-hued parts have the most antioxidants.
Nopal has Vitamins A and C, as well as Calcium, Manganese, Potassium, Copper, Iron, and Omega 3s. Just one cup of plain raw cactus has less than 15 calories but all of the wonderful nutrients.
Can You Eat Cactus Raw?
Eating cactus raw has been a common practice for hundreds of years. Although there are many delicious ways to cook up a cactus, it is perfectly safe to eat nopales raw.
The tougher outer skin of the nopal is softened during cooking. If you have sensitive digestion you may want to only consume this delicacy cooked to avoid stomach troubles.
What Does Cactus Fruit Taste Like?
Cactus fruit has a unique taste that has been compared to concentrated watermelon with a little bit of salt. The flesh is soft and spongy, with a similar texture to that of a melon.
The flesh of a cactus fruit (also called tuna) is not as juicy as many melons or berries but closer to an apple. There are many tiny seeds that you’ll want to spit out.
Are All Types Of Cactus Edible?
No, not all types of cactus are safe to eat. Many types of cactus can make you sick if you eat the wrong species by accident.
This is why we always recommend purchasing your nopales from a trusted source and only foraging for them yourself if you have been properly trained.
Much like mushrooms, some species of cacti look very similar and it can be quite difficult to tell the difference in the wild.
Where Can You Find Cactus?
Canned nopales can be found in many grocery stores. If your local grocery store does not have it, a specialty grocer featuring South American foods probably will.
Fresh nopales can be found at specialty grocers, local farmer’s markets, or growing wild!
While we would never recommend foraging for cactus without the proper training to be able to correctly identify various species of cactus, there are certain places where you may be more likely to come across wild nopal.
What Is Nopal Cactus Used For?
Nopal (also called prickly pear cactus or opuntia) is both foraged and commercially grown.
It is used for a wide variety of purposes. Of course, one of the major uses is food. Not just for humans, either. Nopal is also used for animal feed.
In addition to food, Nopal is used in traditional medicine. The word ‘nopal’ is from the Nahuatl language, and descendants of that people still utilize the plant in folk medicine.
Its blood sugar regulation and immune-boosting properties make it a great remedy for fatigue. The ooze is used to treat wounds.
How Do You Prepare Cactus?
So, now that you know what cactus tastes like, we’re sure you’re interested in trying some for yourself. But all those spikes can be a bit daunting, so here’s a great tutorial from the Sunset channel on YouTube on how to prepare it:
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