Tuesday 13 May 2008

cactus salad

Dhivya from Culinary Bazaar has launched an exciting new vegetarian cooking event, covering a new country every month: A Worldly Epicurean’s Delight or AWED for short.

For the first very month, our country of focus will be Mexico. What a great choice! There are so many vibrant, flavoursome options to choose from.

And what better ingredient to focus on than one featured in the Mexican coat of arms?

Can you spot it? The spiky cactus perch under the eagle?
I am talking about nopales, the young paddles of the prickly pear cactus.

The Mexican Coat of Arms depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli, told the nomadic tribe that they should settle where they found an eagle devouring a snake, perched on a cactus, growing from a rock in the middle of a lake. Kind of specific.

Their divine sign came two hundred years later, in 1325, and the Aztec (Nahuatl) word for the Opuntia cactus, tenochtli, named the city.

And where is Tenochtitlan today? Buried beneath modern-day Mexico City with the original market square smack bang under Mexico City's own zócalo (main square).

Native to Mexico, Opuntia cacti are most commonly farmed from the Opuntia ficus-indica, although most Opuntia cultivars are edible anyway. The cactus can be sold fresh, canned, bottled or dried. In Australia, where only really the fruits are harvested, we import bottled nopales from Mexico, but I'm sure in other countries you could get your hands on the fresh paddles.

Fresh paddles need to be carefully prepared because they are full of cactus gel (like an aloe vera plant), however bottled nopales need only be washed and then used immediately. They are slightly sour, but are very mild and almost have a capsicum tinge to them.

Nopales, also known in their diminutive form nopalitos, are quite common in Mexican cuisine, served alongside eggs or in tacos. They are also gaining popularity in New Mexican and Tex Mex cooking.

They have great health benefits to them as well being rich in insoluble and soluble dietary fibre, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and copper as well as the vitamins A, C, K, B6 and riboflavin. Nopales also reduce the glycemic effect of a meal.

Opuntia are a genus in the cactus family Cactaceae and are native to Mexico and the south-west USA, but they are also very cold tolerant and can grow as far north as Canada!

The cacti grow flat, rounded paddles or platyclades which contain both large, fixed spines and small hairy spines known as glochids. It is the glochids which detach from the paddles and embed themselves into skin causing significant pain.

I once picked up some nopal paddles and was pricked through a thick layer of plastic. It was horrible and the pain in my fingers lasted a long time after I'd removed all the tiny spines. I can only imagine how bad it would be to get one in your tongue or throat!!!

The vividly coloured green, pink and deep purple fruits are known as prickly pears, cactus figs, Indian figs and tuna. They are edible once you carefully peel the outer layer and remove the very fine glochids (spines) to ensure they do not injure the throat or mouth.

Opuntia littoralis has been introduced to southern Europe and flourishes in the south of France, along the Struma River in Bulgaria, in southern Portugal and Madeira, mainland Greece, Corfu, Cyprus, southern Spain and Gibraltar, Malta and southern Italy. In Sicily the fruits, known in the singular as ficurinnia, are very popular and are used in jelly, jams and drinks.

In Malta the pears are eaten as a summer fruit (known as Bajtra tax-Xewk) and turned into a pink herbal liqueur known as Bajtra. In the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena, the potent Tungi spirit is distilled from the Indian Fig Opuntia.

Nopales are also really important to the dye industry, as the Dactylopius coccus scale insect, which is responsible for producing naturally occurring Cochineal (red dye) is native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico and feeds exclusively on Opuntia cacti. Aztecs and Mayans were been farming the insect for its dye long before the Spanish conquest and it was once an extremely valuable commodity. Due to recent discoveries that artificial red dyes have carcinogenic effects, the natural Cochineal has become commercially valuable again and harvesting operations have sprung up all over the world, even Australia.

Ensalada de Nopalitos (Cactus Salad)
Anna & Jonas’ recipe. Serves 2.

250g bottled nopalitos
¼ white cabbage, shredded
1 tablespoon fresh coriander, chopped
4 pickled jalapenos (jalapenos escabeche), chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
1. Drain and rinse nopalitos. Soak in a bowl water for 2 minutes. This helps to remove any remaining slime/gel.
2. In a bowl, whisk together lime juice, vinegar and olive oil.
3. Drain the nopalitos and pat dry.
4. Toss together all the ingredients with the dressing, season and serve.
Variations: you could also add tomatoes or substitute cabbage for lettuce.

Interesting trivia from Wikipedia:
*In Israel , the cactus fig is called tzabar (צבר). This is the origin of the slang term sabra, meaning a native-born Israeli Jew.
*Opuntia stricta were imported into Australia in the 19th century, in an attempt to establish a cochineal dye industry, and quickly became a widespread invasive weed, rendering 40,000 km² of farming land unproductive.
*Apart from cochineal, the red dye betanin can be extracted from some Opuntia plants directly.
*Indian Fig Opuntia (and probably others) might have a reducing effect on alcohol hangover by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators.
*The gel-like sap of Opuntia can be used as hair conditioner.
*According to Reuters, some 10,000 farmers cultivate nopales in Mexico, producing around $150 million worth of it each year.


Photo & information sources:


  1. When in Greece in the summer, I see prickly pears growing but they aren't ripe until the fall, way beyond my stay. You keep on pushing the envelope with ethnic dishes and exotic ingredients...me like!

  2. Did U say Cactus! Oh My you are godsend..I see them in the stores but dint get around to trying anything with them. This is such a wonderful idea.

    Will sure give this one a try. Thanks for sending it for the event. Roundup tomorrow :)


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