Nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica) is called Nopal in both English and Spanish, the plural of nopal is nopales or los nopales in Spanish. In English nopal is often called prickly pear. 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.
Nopal is commonly eaten in Mexican cuisine. You can almost always find nopales in Mexican markets.
The leaves of nopales are called pads in English but usually are just called nopales. Nopales are sold in the market with their spines freshly removed. 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, stews or a side dish as above. Boiled nopales taste similar to green beans and are bit slimy like okra. The pads can also be roasted or grilled.
There are two types of nopal fruit (prickly pear); tuna and the less common chiconostle (or tuna ácido). The peel of the nopal fruit is not edible. The fruit of tuna is sweet; chiconostle is bitter. Tuna will be juicier than chiconostle; chiconostle will have a thicker fruit area around the seeds than tuna.
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 (red tunas), tunas verdes (green tuna) and tunas amarillas (yellow tuna). 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 to try. To make a smoothie, scoop out the insides of five or six tuna and put them into a blender along with some sugar 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.
Chiconostle also known as xoconostle or tuna ácido in Spanish is the fruit from the nopal plant with a bitter taste. Chiconostle is called xokonochtli in Nahuatl. Click here for a large image of chiconostle.
Although the peel of the chiconostle 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 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.
Leather, nopal can be made into leather or as the inventors call it, "cactus vegan leather".
Nopal, after the spines are removed, 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).