Salad: The humble nopal

Foodbuzz dinner

[donotprint]If you have been reading this blog for sometime you probably have noticed that I like simple foods. It’s not that I don’t make complicated dishes. But I think that simple and easy dishes can be as good and tasteful, sometimes even more, than eccentric and fancy ones.

And what gives simple foods an extraordinary flavor? Julia Child (my new heroine) said:

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.

Yes, the key to great foods is fresh and flavorful ingredients. And when they are natural and nutritious ingredients the results are much better. There is a very humble, yet delicious and nutritious, vegetable that I’ve forgotten for a while. Maybe you’ve seen it or heard of it. It is a vegetable that has been cultivated for thousands of years in what is now known as the Mexico basin and that was very important in the diets of the indigenous peoples of that area. It is even part of the modern Mexican flag. I am talking about nopal.


What is nopal? Nopales are edible young cactus pads from the Opuntia species. They are mainly cultivated in the mountainous states that surround Mexico City, though the Spanish took them with them in the XV century and they’re now also cultivated in parts of the Mediterranean and North Africa. Nopal is also known as prickly pear and it can be bought fresh or canned. Many health benefits have been associated to this vegetable and some products in the form of pills, powder, drinks and even cosmetics made from nopal can be purchased.

I was surprised to find them at Whole Foods last time I was there. Many food memories came rushing down and I decided to make a salad that I hadn’t eaten in years. There are many other ways to eat them and I will post more recipes in the future. This salad is only my way of introducing this amazing vegetable to my readers, in case you didn’t know it existed or if, like me, you forgot about it.[/donotprint]

Nopalitos salad

For this recipe you will need:

  • 2 large nopal pads
  • ½ large onion, sliced
  • 2 fresh Roma tomatoes, cubed
  • 1 TBSP fresh chopped cilantro
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, deveind and chopped (optional for hotness)
  • 1 avocado, cubed
  • juice of one lime
  • salt


  1. Clean nopales with a peeler or a small paring knife. Make sure to remove all the thorns and nods paying special attention to the edges of the pads.
  2. Cut in bite size pieces and boil with onion for 20-25 minutes or until tender. Add salt to taste. Drain.
  3. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a salad bowl and refrigerate until cool.
  4. Serve with your favorite dinner and enjoy.


This salad is easy to make, delicious and very healthy. Who said salads had to be boring?

Buen provecho!

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  • Ben, this salad sounds wonderful and I have found prickly pear plants in Greece in the summer. The pears are not ripe yet but when can the Nopal pads be harvested?

    • I find the pads are best when they are young: they are more tender then. I use gloves when de-spine them with a sharp paring knife as the tiniest spines really hurt and are hard to see. Luckily, the tiny, nasty spines are in the same clusters as the bigger spines. I cut them into strips or chunks when the spines are gone and cook them in a dry frying pan or boil them briefly. Either way, they turn light olive green when they are ready to use in other dishes.
      By the way, Ben, Whole Foods is an inveterate union-buster and its founder John Mackey is very loud about his opposition to any right to health care. The last time Cesar Chavez was here in Austin, there was an informational picket outside the original Whole Foods store, concerning one of the many times that Whole Foods jerked around the United Farm Workers. Mackey & Co had everybody on the picket line arrested and barely missed throwing Cesar Chavez himself in jail. I hope you find someplace else to spend your money.

  • Another fascinating ingredient! (that’s two I’ve learnt of today). Nice one Ben!

  • It’s available even at Safeway, which shouldn’t be a surprise since we’re surrounded by cacti. Hehe. I’ve always wondered how they taste and how to cook them. Maybe I’ll try this sometime when I’m feeling adventurous. Is it sweet? Sour?

  • Ben, this looks SO good! I’ll have to hunt them down this weekend – I think I’ve seen them in our Whole Foods.

  • That looks great. I’d never heard of nopal before. I’ll check for it in my grocery store, but unfortunately I don’t think they will have fresh, maybe canned (I’m in Cincinnati, OH).

  • I never cared for the fruit of prickly pears, though, they are very popular in Gozo, Malta. I’ve yet to try the pads and never knew they were even edible. You’ve peaked my curiousity. Salad looks good and I do appreciate the easy simple dishes, even though, I tend to make a lot of complicated ones!

  • I love nopales. Haven’t had them in a long time. I’ll have to check out our Whole Foods, since we’re not too far apart, geographically. I love them in enchiladas, too.

  • I have seen prickly cactus at the grocers sometimes..interesting salad for sure:D

  • I have heard Nopal is great in aiding diabetes too.Have to try some one day.

  • Thanks, Ben! Just what I was looking for. How did I miss this on your site before? :)

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