Edible cactus is also known as nopales (no-PAH-les), nopalitos, cactus paddles, or cactus pads. This vegetable is popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa and Australia. Its popularity is increasing in the United States, where it can be found at Mexican grocery stores, specialty produce markets and farmer’s markets.
Edible cactus is characterized by its fleshy oval leaves (typically called pads or paddles) of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus.
Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
Availability, Selection, and Storage
Edible cactus is available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying edible cactus, choose small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Very small paddles may require more cleaning because their larger proportion of prickers and eyes. Edible cactus can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.
Edible cactus is also sold as:
- Canned — pickled or packed in water
- Acitrones — candied nopales, packed in sugar syrup and available in cans or jars.
The edible cactus you buy should be de-spined though you will need to trim the “eyes” to remove any remaining prickers, and outside edges of the pads with a vegetable peeler. Trim off any dry or fibrous areas and rinse thoroughly to remove any stray prickers and sticky fluid.
Edible cactus can be eaten raw or cooked. To cook, steam over boiling water for just a few minutes (if cooked too long they will lose their crunchy texture). Then slice and eat! Cactus can also be cut and sautéed in butter or oil for a few minutes.