Real Food Encyclopedia | Prickly Pears and Nopales

There are a great number of species of prickly pear cactus, all of which are native to the Americas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explains that the cactus was probably first cultivated in Mesoamerica, and was of particular importance to the Aztec. Fossilized seeds and skins of the fruit over 7,000 years old have been found in Mexico. Indeed, the name of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) means, “place where cactus pear grows on stone.”

Spanish writers in the early 16th century, including Cortes, noted the deliciousness of the fruit and the gusto with which the locals consumed them. The FAO explains that Columbus probably brought the plant to Spain, where it was likely first cultivated in either Seville or Cadiz. Arab traders spread the plant to the Middle East from Spain, and the cactus then spread to other parts of the world where it took hold, including South Africa, India and Australia.

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Fun Facts about Prickly Pears and Nopales:

  • Prickly pear has proven itself to be a particularly noxious invasive species in Australia and Africa. Introduced in the late 18th century in Australia, the plant had invaded millions of acres of land by the 1920s, rendering it useless for agriculture.
  • Other names for prickly pear include Indian fig, mission cactus, Barbary fig and cactus pear. In Spanish, you’ll see the cactus paddles (i.e., leaves) referred to as nopales, and the fruits as tunas.
  • Colonche, a sweet Mexican beverage made from prickly pear fruits, is mildly alcoholic and fizzy.
  • Prickly pears and nopales are important foods in Mexico — so much so that the prickly pear cactus appears on the Mexican flag.
  • Cochineal insects feed on prickly pear paddles. The bugs produce carminic acid, from which the valuable colorant carmine is derived.

What to Look for When Buying Prickly Pears and Nopales

Both the paddles (nopales) and fruit of the prickly pear are covered in tiny little spines that are certainly not delicious. Some vendors strip the spines off of the paddles and fruit before selling. If you wild harvest you may have to take the spines off yourself (more on that, below). The fruits we most commonly see in North America are a dusky magenta-red (with a magenta interior) but if you’re lucky you may find yellow, green, orange or even white fruits either at the market or in the wild. The paddles are usually harvested young — older paddles are tough and their spines are difficult to remove. Look for bright green paddles that are soft, but not floppy. Both fruit and paddles should be free from mushy or black spots and feel firm when gently squeezed.

Sustainability of Prickly Pears and Nopales

Prickly pear cactus are champs at growing in marginal environments with little water, making them a better agricultural choice than many other fruits and vegetables, especially in drought-prone areas like California. They can also easily be wild-harvested in areas where the cactus grows — in the US, you’ll find the cactus everywhere from the Great Lakes to beaches on the East Coast to the Southwest. Just watch out for those spines! Commercially grown cactus may be treated with synthetic fertilizer, especially if they are being grown for their paddles and not their fruit, or with pesticides. If you’re lucky enough to find either the fruits or paddles at your local farmers’ market, talk to the farmer to find out more about his or her growing (or wild harvesting) practices.

Prickly Pears and Nopales Seasonality

Young cactus paddles are the most tender (and have the smallest spines) — these appear in markets in the spring. In the US, cactus fruits appear in the mid-summer through fall, although you may find imported fruits in specialty markets year-round.

Prickly Pears and Nopales and Geography

Edible cactus are so important in some places that the UN’s FAO holds regular symposiums (called “CACTUSNET”) on the utilization of the plant. The D’Arrigo Brothers Company (aka “Andy Boy”, who you may remember from our broccoli rabe article as the folks behind the popularization of that vegetable in the US) is campaigning to popularize both the fruit and the paddles of the cactus. They’ve got a growing operation in California, and are marketing the fruit as “cactus pears” and cactus paddles as “nopalitos.” In Sicily, the fruits are highly prized. The juiciest specimens, called “bastardoni” appear in the fall.

The Opuntia genus includes hundreds of species of cactus, many of which have edible fruits and leaves (paddles). Depending on the species, the plant grows tall and upright or low and spreading. Plants can be propagated from seed, or more easily from cuttings. Its lovely flowers range in color from yellow to orange to pink, and even the fruits range in color — some are the characteristic magenta, but if you’re lucky you may also find green, orange and yellow varieties. Both the paddles and the fruit are covered in small spines (they are a cactus, after all) called glochids, which are barbed and can cause extreme skin irritation.

One of the most commonly cultivated species of prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica, is grown for both its fruits and its paddles in arid areas all over the world, including central Mexico, parts of the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Middle East and parts of East Africa.

Eating Prickly Pears and Nopales

Storing Prickly Pears and Nopales

Prickly pears and nopales can be stored covered in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. They also freeze well since they are predominantly used in cooked dishes.

Cooking with Prickly Pears and Nopales

Before cooking nopales, you’ll want to make sure to de-spine and clean them. The fruits, too, must be handled and prepared in a certain way to avoid getting stuck with the painful spines — here is how to cut and prepare them.

Prickly pear paddles are used as a vegetable in much of Mexico and the US Southwest. After de-spining, they can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked like a vegetable, made into salsas and tucked into tacos. The paddles release a good deal of mucilaginous sap that is a lot like the slimy juice that okra releases when cooked — if you don’t enjoy that texture, the paddles can be sautéed or boiled to reduce much of the slimy liquid.

The fruits are used in beverages like margaritas, in candies, and in sauces and syrups, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.

Preserving Prickly Pears and Nopales

Prickly pear fruits and paddles will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator if kept dry. Put them in a paper bag and keep in your crisper.

Prickly Pears and Nopales Nutrition

Prickly pear fruit is high in Vitamin C, fiber and magnesium. It’s also got a bit of calcium and potassium and is high in antioxidants. The fruit has been used as a hangover preventative, and may help lower cholesterol. The nopales are high in calcium, Vitamin C, manganese and magnesium. Traditionally, the pads were heated and used as a treatment for arthritis and other aches and pains.