Comida, Cultura, Familia



For a long time, I thought all Mexicans in the LA-area had nopales (cactus) in their backyard. Of course, my sample size was small. All my relatives had nopales growing in their backyard. We did too.

The nopales, spread out in a corner of the backyard against a brick wall, were a nuisance to us kids who had to be extra careful while playing. On the plus side, I’m sure they deterred a thief or two from climbing the wall and we were never burglarized.

For Mamá Toní, a native of Zacatecas where nopales grew on every cerro (hillside), nopales are meant to be eaten. They’re for ensaladas and guisos. They go excellent with tortas de camarón during Lent and are an excellent side dish with carne asada. (I won’t even get in to the tasty tunas, or cactus pears.)

Nopales are not only on our frentes, they’re in our tummies too.


mamá toniAfter saying her morning rosary and cooking el desayuno for Papá Chepe, she got to work on her monthly ritual of enfrascando nopales.

Mamá Toni started by examining the nopales in the corner of the backyard. They were taller than her with their pencas (“leaves”) spread in every which way. She chose the best looking pencas and cut them off with a large butcher knife. She tossed them in to a large basket. When it was full, she grabbed the basket and walked over to a table in the backyard. She stood as she worked on the next task, because as my mom says, “no work gets done while sitting.”

I finished my cereal and joined her outside in the mid-morning sun. It wasn’t hot yet, but it would be in an hour or two.

I watched intently as Mamá Toni worked with expert speed and efficiency to clean off all the thorns with the large butcher knife. To avoid pricking herself with the thorn, she’d hold the penca at the base where she cut it from the larger plant and shave off the thorns of each side of the penca. They littered the table. I kept my distance.

“No te pican?” I asked.

“No,” she replied and kept working without looking to me.

She placed each clean penca in a large bowl.

When she was done cleaning all the pencas, she moved the operation to the kitchen, out of the bright sun. She piled the pencas on the table so that they formed a bright green mound.

Mamá Toni went through that mound so quickly as she chopped the smooth pencas. I touched a slice. It was slimey with the nopal ooze.

“¿Quieres probarlo?” she asked.

I scrunched my nose. I wasn’t a picky eater, but the nopales were weird looking. “¿Se pueden comer así?” I asked. I didn’t know nopales could be eaten raw.

She took the small slice, sprinkled some salt on it and handed it to me.

It was my first time trying nopales. I was 8 years old.

“¿No te gusto?”

“Es que…” my Spanish failed me. I didn’t know how to say that nopales tasted green and a bit slimy.

She sensed my hesitation.

“Son buenos para la salud,” she offered.

I didn’t believe her, but I finished the rest of my small piece.

Mamá Toni got back to chopping. She worked fast. First, she chopped the penca into vertical strips about a centimeter thick. She held the long green lines together and turned them horizontally and began chopping them into perfect squares.

Once she was done with this, she started cooking the raw nopales and canning them in Mason jars. i didn’t pay much attention to this process, because I ditched the kitchen for a cooler place, like the shady tree in the front lawn. The ktichen and adjacent living room felt like a sauna. According to Mamá Toni, you needed a close environment to effectively can the nopales.

By the end of the day, we had a dozen jars of olive green nopales. Mamá Toni would repartir (divide) the jars. Her sons, Chuy and Roberto, always received more jars than her six daughters.


I eat nopales now. And that’s a good thing:

The dishes historically served alongside tortillas and beans have medicinal traits, too. Nopales — tasty cactus leaves still a staple food in much of Mexico — control blood sugar, possibly by mimicking insulin. (source: Houston Chronicle)

I should’ve known. Mamá Toni is a wise woman.

This post was inspired by Mexfiles


28 thoughts on “Nopalitos

  1. Claudia says:

    Nice Post!! As a kid I avoided eating nopales but now they are a MUST. When I went to europe for six weeks a few years ago I actually wrote to my mom in a post card that I missed nopales y frijoles.

  2. Momo says:

    Awww, nopales…sigh… My mom does exactly what the lady in the picture is doing! Except that she actually delivers to nopal-hungry residents of the SG. She doesn’t need to do it anymore, but it gives her purpose. How much more Mexican can you get than that? Some clients call her the “Nopalera.” 😉

  3. Hahaha…my dad has them in his backyard too, right near a brick wall. Swears they are the best thing for your health…second only to (black, he is from Guerrero) beans. He loves them.

    But I can’t touch them. Yuck! Thats usually the day I go get me some burgers from In N Out. 🙂

  4. Gustavo Arellano says:

    In my many years as a food critic, no Mexican foodstuff has perplexed gabachos more than nopales, which I’ve never quite understood. I’ve always liked them–perfect with means, arroz, papas and some sour cream!

  5. My abuelita developed diabetes a while back but the medicine the doctor gave her was making her feel bad so she stopped taking it. She started eating nopales and drinking a glass of nopal water every morning and every night instead (not to be confused with agua de nopal– it’s not really flavorful like an agua– it’s just water that has had nopales soaking in it overnight).

    When the doctor found out that she had stopped taking the medicine he had prescribed, he was really angry and offended that she didn’t trust his judgment. When her blood tests came back, he apologized to her— She was in better health than she had been in years. Gracias a los nopales– the diabetes is GONE.

  6. Veronica says:

    My parents and my hubby eat them..we have them in out back yard too… I’m not a big fan ..only when she makes them with cositillitas the puerco guisadas con chile colorado. yum!

  7. we had some in our backyard too! only enough to make a meal a few out of them, I don’t like them, they still taste green and slimy to me!

  8. Once they been cooked properly, they’re really no different than green beans. I like ’em scrambled with some huevos, think I might have that this morning!

  9. Letty says:

    i think the first thing my parents planted in our house were nopales. one of my favorite meals at their house is nopales con frijolitos de la hoya, queso fresco y tortillas (de maiz). and my grandma…le encanta pelar los nopales – while she listens to the dodger game…

  10. Huevos con Nopales is a staple at my house. Also love a good Cactus Salad. Remember the soda called Cactus Cooler? Despite the label, I don’t think it had any Nopales.

  11. yup I agree with everyone lol we also have them in the back yard and they are a must at least once a week in different variations,My fav is nopalitos with cebbolla and dried chili tossed together and gisados in some olive oil, then eat them in a tortilla de maiz. As a kid I also hated them but I guess when I got older I just started liking them a a lot. You cant forget the Tunas that grown out of them as well nice and sweet!

  12. Yep…my Nana used to make it for breakfast with eggs…for dinner in chili colorado. mmmmm. She had a big patch growing in the backyard.

  13. Count me in as one of those who didn’t start eating nopales until adulthood…and def, they grow in the backyard. Its all about that local organic vegetables!

    Oh, and I find it extremely annoying (but I try to be patient) with white people on the east coast who say, “You eat CACTUS?!”

  14. I started late also, but went to town with them once I did.
    Nopales in quesadillas
    —with beans (pinto)
    I love ’em

  15. The nopalitos are good, mi abuelita always had nopalitos handy. I always keep some and from time to time they accompany many of my dishes and when cooking out I like to slap the whole nopal pad on the grill and smother it con garlic butter. Cindy, the tunas are delicious and although I had a bad experience with them I still eat them (just not as much at one time)

  16. Maria del desierto says:

    Nopales with costillas de puerco and chile colorado. Nopales con huevo, tortas de camaron con nopales en salsa roja, nopales azados al carbon. All of these different variations for nopales I grew up with. I learned making them a-huevo from my mother and now I’m the only one in my family that knows how to peel them, cook them, etc.. What a wonderful friega I got from my mother God bless her soul.

  17. guillermo reyes jr says:

    i need to start my dxay with nopales, blending them with oj, fresh pina, platanos, manjo and berries in my bullett blender, also with soy chorizo, onions and jalapenos, this is my version of breakfants fo championes

  18. Julio says:

    I’ve recently (re)started my love affair with nopales. Must be the season, that is so conducive to great nopales. Being hypoglycemic and a homeopathic buff I love to eat them to help out with my fluctuating blood sugar. I have them with some tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, and mexican squash. And of course they must be served with fresh beans and some corn tortillas.

  19. People who suffer from kidney failure should avoid nopales. I never knew this until after my mother passed away. Surely, I would have made her give them up for her own good. Now, I’m glad none us knew, because she got to enjoy her nopalitos almost until the very end. Gracias, Madre mia, for teaching me to love them so.

  20. meg says:

    I tried Nopalitos when visiting Mexico a few years ago and recently have found some prickly pear bushes which I think are the same thing. But how do I preserve them? They are pretty unknown here but my son in law is Mexican and wants me to try to cook them for him. Any ideas?

  21. Karen says:

    I understand nopales can be canned like other fruits and vegetables. They should be boiled for no longer than 15-20 minutes or they will slimey. I don’t know if they are the same as prickly pear. I buy them in the grocery store.

  22. Pingback: Lotería Chicana » Blog Archive » 31, Westwood & most popular posts

  23. merinda farrow says:

    so do they need to be process in a water bath canner or a pressure cooker? For how long? Thanks any information would be great

  24. Melinda,

    The pads (nopalitos) need to be canned in a pressure canner as they are a low acid food. Alternately, you could make a vinegar pickle with them and can that in a water bath canner. You can also make a jam and marmalade from the fruit (tuna) and can that in a water bath canner.

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