Nopal: edible cactus

A friend of mine wrote to let me know of a nopal recipe contest in Hostotipaquillo. Most people who have been to the Southwest know this is the fleshy pad or leaf of the prickly pear, Opuntia cactus. It is a common vegetable in Mexico. I’ve mostly eaten it in salads or with scrambled eggs called nopalitos. The taste reminds me of string beans with a little bit of lemon juice. People can be very creative with it and prepare it boiled, grilled, fried, or mixed into sauces.

What makes nopal so special from a nutrition perspective is that by eating it we can prevent diabetes.

Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge

Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge

Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.

Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.

Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!

Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!

Scientists have figured out some really cool insights to how this works. The prickly pear cactus plant adapts to its dry environment by slowing down water loss with its slimy extracellular mucilage. According to Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Why Some Like it Hot, “the gooey globs of soluble fiber holds water longer and stronger than the moisture held within photosynthesizing cells.” He goes on to explain the mechanism of how this works. He then talks about how nopal works in the human digestive tract.

“ The very mucilage and pectin that slow down the digestion and absorption of sugars in our guts are produced by prickly pears to slow water loss during times of drought. And prickly pear, it turns out, has been among the most effective slow-release foods in helping diabetes-prone native people slow the rise in their blood glucose levels after a sugar-rich meal.”

You can see how to prepare and cook nopal by watching Dr. Tierona Low Dog, director of fellowship at Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, on Dr. Weil’s site

http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/VDR00128/Preparing-Prickly-Pear-Cactus-Dr-Low-Dog.html

I’ll keep you posted about the winning recipe from Hosto!

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