Nopal is a member of the Cactaceae family, of the genus opuntia. It often takes the form of a small shrub or creeping plant. It is widely grown in Mexico and derives its names from a Nahualt word.

In the Tehuacán Valley (Puebla), the remains of fruit seeds and a few pieces of nopal were discovered that date back some 700 years, proving that even then it was used as a source of food. According to experts, nopal was first cultivated about 5000 years ago. Its original name is "tenochtitlán," meaning "fruit of the stone and of Nuchtli." In 1587 the Aztecs referred to it as Nopali, a word borrowed from the Spanish which is still used today.

Characteristics of Nopal
Since nopal is a plant found in dry conditions, its cultivation is restricted by three factors:

  1. abundance of moisture
  2. absence of nutrients
  3. excessively low temperatures which would burn the bud 

Use and Importance in Mexican Society

Nopal has now acquired great importance in gastronomy. Its flattened branches are eaten as a vegetable, and it fruit, referred to by the name "Barbary fig," is usually eaten plain or candied.

After the spines have been removed, the fruit of the nopal is one of the most important food crops collected by the native population, thanks to its unique flavour. Mexicans like to eat it with eggs, in salads or even in tomato gratins. The subsistence of many families depends on it.

It is also used as a hedge to mark property lines, to make conche (a fermented beverage), and to cure an overindulgence in pulque (another fermented beverage). It also has industrial applications as a dye, rubber and anticorrosive.

In northern Mexico, it is used as cattle feed: although it lessens milk production, it is very inexpensive and produces animals of high quality. In the middle of the country, it is eaten both as a fruit and a vegetable and in southern Mexico, it is raised for the production of seeds. Its economic importance aside, nopal also plays an important role in soil conservation, protecting the top soil from erosion.

In Cooking
Nopal is the leaf of the cactus, used when small and tender. All the spines have first to be carefully removed.

The Importance of a Penny
You will be surprised to see that a copper penny is required in cooking nopal, but it's there for a good reason. First you have to rub it with baking soda and lemon. Then it is heated on a grill until it turns red, and thrown into the water used to cooked the nopal. This allows the water to reach its boiling point more quickly and also neutralizes the viscous substance found in the cactus.


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