Nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica) is called Nopal in both English and Spanish, the plural of nopal is nopales or los nopales in Spanish. Nopal is called nopalli in Nahuatl. Nopal is a common type of cactus with over 220 species, of which 60-90 species live in Mexico.
The fruit of the nopal is called prickly pear in English and in Spanish is called tuna.
Nopal is commonly eaten in Mexican cuisine. You can almost always find nopales in Mexican markets. Tuna is seasonal.
The leaves of nopales are called pads. Nopales are sold in the market with their spines freshly removed. A bag of despined and sliced nopales (about two cups) will cost less than U.S. $1 (Aug. 2020).
Nopales can be eaten raw or cooked, almost always they are cooked. After removal of the spines, the pads are sliced and then boiled to be used in different dishes such as egg and nopal tacos (huevos con nopales), stews or a side dish. Boiled nopales taste similar to green beans and are bit slimy like okra. The pads can also be roasted or grilled.
Prickly Pear comes in two main flavors; sweet and sour. Sweet prickly pear is usually referred to as tuna; sour prickly pear is usually referred to as xoconostle or tuna agria. Tuna will be juicier than xoconostle; xoconostle will have a thicker fruit area around the seeds than tuna. The peel of the prickly pear is not edible.
Tuna or nochtli in Nahuatl. is the fruit of the nopal plant with a sweet taste. There are many varieties of tunas, many of which are regional. The three main types of tunas are tunas rojas or tunas taponas (red tunas), tunas verdes (green tunas) and tunas amarillas (yellow tunas). The red tuna tastes a little like raspberries, the green tuna is sweet but kind of bland in flavor and the yellow tuna I have not yet had the pleasure of trying. To make a smoothie, scoop out the insides of five or six tuna and put them into a blender with water along with some sugar or honey and blend. Tunas are usually available from March through October. Click here for a larger image of tunas rojas and here for a larger image of tunas verdes.
Xoconostle also known as or tuna agria in Spanish is the fruit from the nopal plant with a bitter taste. Xoconostle is called xokonochtli in Nahuatl. Click here for a large image of xoconostle.
Although the peel of the xoconostle is not edible, the fruit and seeds inside are. They can be eaten raw but are usually roasted and added into salsas.
Because of the high fiber in nopal, many Mexicans believe eating nopal purifies the blood, lowers cholesterol, helps treat type 2 diabetes and lowers blood pressure.
Cochineal dye is created from cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a parasitic insect that feeds off of the moisture and nutrients of the nopal pads. The insects are brushed off of the nopal plant, dried and later used to make a scarlet or crimson colored dye. The natives of Mexico and Central America used the dye long before the Spanish conquest. After the Spanish conquest, cochineal dye was one Mexico's largest exports until artificial dyes replaced it in the 19th century. Click here for a large image of cochineal.
Leather, nopal can be made into leather or as the inventors call it, "cactus vegan leather".
Nopal, after the spines are removed or burned off, is used as cattle feed.
Nopal is also grown along property lines, serves well as border, like barbed wire.
If you are interested in learning more about Mexican foods, you might want to visit Edible Insects of Oaxaca and Mexico or Mexican Plants and Foods.
Photos taken by Marc Wilkinson. I, the copyright holder, hereby publish these photos under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).