Yes, we do eat cactus, and plenty of them. Some are eaten as a candy, some as fruit and some for salads, even in BBQs. Today, before writing this post, I had a cactus + pinneapple + spinach juice. Tasty😋.
I was utterly surprised when I saw plenty of cactus near Timbuctu (Mali) and was told that only cows would eat them. “No human would try them”, I was told.
That was just a shame, as some of these cactus have high nutritional value and prevent many illnesses.
So here a list of the cacti we Mexicans eat more:
Also known in south USA as prickly pear, it is the most widespread cactus in Mexico. It is also basic for most Mexicans fiber income.
We could hardly say it is a tree nor a bush. Nopal grow in nopaleras, one of the most iconic images of deserts in Mexico. Mexicans eat the “leaves” of these nopaleras: thick green ovals no larger than 30cm long. Of course, as many cacti, they are covered with thorns which should be removed with a knife. However, in most supermarkets they sell nopales already thorn-free.
When you cut a nopal a gooey substance emerges. Not the best for aesthetics. That is the reason why many of us prefer to grill nopales so this substance evaporates. It also tastes much better grilled.
As mentioned, in the last few years, having a nopal as part of your “green juice” has become a norm. However, the use of nopal has existed for as long as people has lived in the area now known as Mexico. “Nopalitos” is a small salad we eat with dices of nopal mixed with tomato, onion and chile. The southern you venture, the more likely you will see it even as a snack at restaurants.
Nopal is so versatile that now it is converted into flower. And you guess it right, now we have nopal flower for tortillas and tostadas (grilled tortillas). More often than not, I have seen nopales included in posh carnes asadas (BBQ) along with fancy steaks. It is also a great addition for vegetarian BBQ.
I do not mean tuna the fish, but tuna, the nopal fruit. It is an extremely delicious and sweet fruit growing on top of nopaleras. As such, it is filled with many seeds that for many make this fruit not that edible. Its skin is covered with thorns.
With so many seeds and thorns, why do we like it so much? Because it is very sweet and refreshing. Regarding seeds and thorns, just eat the former and let the supermarket take care of the former.
Once you put a skinless tuna in your mouth, it will almost melt. It is so soft and filled with water that there is not real need to chew it. In hot months, street vendors sell it frozen and is a great way to fresh your mouth.
By the way, it is one of my favourite fruits.
Instead of the long, flat ovals of nopales, biznagas are a rounded and fat. Their scientific name is “echinocactus” (from Latin ecchinus, sea urchin). It does seem like a cactus in the shape of a sea urchin.
Acitrón is a candy made of biznaga. In Mexico some fruits (and to this extent, cactus) are cooked with quicklime (really?) and then added sugar cane candy. This process is called “cristalizar” (crystallise). So, acitrón is the crystallized version of a biznaga cactus. It is mostly used to decorate the famous King Cake eaten around Epiphany Day.
The most fun of all. It is a hallucinogenous cactus. See where the fun comes from?
It is a small cactus that grows in the shadows, mostly under the surface so you barely see the top of it (no more than 10cms above ground). You can only find it in Central and Northeastern Mexico (Zacatecas, Coahuila, San Luis Potosí and Nuevo León). For centuries it has been the means for shamans to get in contact with spirits and gods. Currently there is a new hipster fever to have peyote in raves.
You actually eat it squashed. Its taste is so bitter than you’d better add some orange juice to disguise its nasty flavour. You need to eat at least two peyotes for a nice “trip”.
It is not really edible. However, since it is one of the most distinguishable cactus people see on Baja highways, I get many questions regarding if we eat it or not. As far as I know, no, we do not it. But it does look cool with its long arms looking like a character in the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.
Exotic Mexican food is know for its escamoles (ant eggs), chapulines (grasshoppers) and mole sauce (made of chocolate, chile, sugar,etc). If you are trying them all, why not add a dish of nopalitos?