Have you ever eaten a cactus? It may seem too exotic or even scary to even think about eating a cactus, but it’s actually a delicious and healthy food. This is one way we eat cactus in Mexico!
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The other day, I helped my mom whip up a delicious, full-course meal that included one thorny cactus dish. Our challenge was to feed our whole family plus five unexpected guests. Unexpected, as in unannounced. Because showing up at somebody’s place for dinner when nobody is expecting you is completely normal in Mexico. Yes, really.
Where can you find an edible cactus?
One of the most typical foods in Mexico is the nopal cactus. These are grown in large-scale farms, but also pop up like an unannounced guest in almost any random field. You can just cut off a bunch of thorny pads and you’re ready to start cooking! Or you might die from the thorns ripping you apart. Anything is possible.
Unfortunately, the nopal cactus is rare outside of Mexico. In any other country, it’s sold only in specialty stores and markets.
Why eat a cactus?
But why would anyone risk their life to eat one of those prickly, spiky things?
First, because they are a juicy, meaty, tasty, filling, low-calorie vegetable.
Second, because they are full of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins, and also boost the immune system, lower cholesterol and blood sugar, and have cancer-fighting properties.
Finally, because you can have them roasted, boiled, pickled, or in eggs, tacos, soups, stews, juices, or salads. You can cook pretty much anything with a nopal cactus!
From all these options, Mom decided we should make a salad as a quick and easy side dish for our numerous guests.
How to cook a cactus
If you want to cook a cactus, the first thing is to do is go to the farmer´s market and buy some fresh cactus pads. Then, have the very skilled vendor scrape off the thorns with a knife. Do not ever try to do this yourself unless you want your hands to become pin cushions. I cannot stress this enough!
After that, a thornless cactus pad is completely safe to touch and cook. This is what it looks like.
Next, dice the cactus and throw it all into a copper pot with some water and onion slices. Don’t have a copper pot? Just throw in a random piece of copper. No, you won’t get poisoned. The copper actually keeps the cactus looking green after you cook it. Otherwise, it turns a dull gray color, and that’s not appetizing at all.
Leave the cactus to simmer for about 40 minutes. Then, drain and let cool.
Finally, throw it in a salad bowl and season it with salt and oregano. Add diced onion, sliced tomatoes, and even chunks of queso fresco and avocado slices. Drizzle with olive oil and that’s it. Your cactus salad is ready!
A cactus salad makes a great side dish for meat, chicken or whatever else you have in mind. You can eat it as it is or with warm tortillas. It’s also great with black beans or guacamole. Basically, a cactus salad is like a good pair of jeans- it goes with anything!
And yes, dinner was a success! Even the unexpected guests found it delicious and promised to return
unannounced again soon. There is no greater compliment for a Mexican cook!
Perhaps you are wondering about the rest of the menu, but that is a whole other story. See you in my next post!