Make it a point to eat cactus
VANESSA CACERESIn one of my English classes for adults about two years ago, a student from Mexico talked about eating a cactus called a nopal .
Published: January 23, 2013
Published: January 23, 2013
"Eating a cactus? What?" I asked. He talked about different ways it could be prepared and that it was a common part of the Mexican diet.
I didn't give what he said much thought until recently, when I spotted the nopal — known in English as the prickly pear cactus — during a visit to a Latin supermarket. It turns out if you're looking for some variety in your healthy diet, you might want to give the nopal (called nopales in plural) a try.
"Nopales are very healthy for digestion and to improve your diet," said Bradenton resident Waly Zemp, a native of Mexico. "They're cheap and delicious."
Zemp rattled off the ways he prepares nopales at home — in tortillas, with eggs, in fajitas, as part of a jelly, and on the grill much as you would use a portabella mushroom. Of course, you must remove the prickly skin of the cactus before you consume it, he said.
Although Zemp is a meat eater, he actually prefers to eat grilled nopales instead of grilled meat as he feels nopales are easier to digest.
When Zemp buys nopales, he tries to buy them in bags with their skin already removed — it costs a little more, but it saves a good deal of prep time.
Fellow Bradenton resident Miguel Valle, also from Mexico, said he will use nopales in egg or pork dishes.
"In Mexico, we use them a lot," he said. His mother consumes nopales to help control her diabetes.
I learned that nopales have been hailed for many years by indigenous cultures to have medicinal qualities — they are said to help with diabetes, inflammation and weight loss.
So of course, I had to try them for myself.
At the bustling Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton on a recent Saturday, I bought nopales with the prickly skin still on them.
The nopales were cheap — four pieces for a $1. I only later found a vendor who had an expert knife-wielder quickly cutting off the skin and selling ready-to-cook nopales, one pound for $3. Sold.
I found out later that they are indeed grown on a more informal basis here in Florida, mostly to supply Latin restaurants or markets. There have been efforts to grow nopales on a wider scale in the state, but they are mostly gone now.
I then visited a Mexican restaurant in the flea market that sold nopales tacos — they had much more spicy seasoning than I would use at home, but they were still tasty. The taste reminded me of green bell peppers. I've read others likening them in taste to green beans.
At home, I combined them with onions and cilantro for my morning scrambled eggs. I also made my own nopales tacos — the less-spicy, gringo version. Not just to buy into the hype, but I do feel they made me feel full for a long time.
I plan to get them again to vary my vegetable choices, but I'll buy them with their skins off. When I tried to cut off the skin myself, it took a long time and I wasted about half of the thin cactus. My family would starve if I had to do that every day.