They are juicy, meaty, tasty, low in calories and at the same time, an important source of fibre, antioxidants and vitamins. The prickly pear—or nopal cactus—is an extremely versatile plant that can be eaten many ways: roasted, boiled, pickled, scrambled, tacos, stews, soups, juices or salads.

In 2018, we experienced a boom in plant-based diets, and of course, cactus-based foods could not be missing.

Can you eat prickly pears?

Sure! Eating prickly pear is something that has long been practiced by the oldest civilizations. In fact, the nopal has been a very important source of nutrition for the peoples of Mesoamerica for more than 12,000 years.

Of course, not just any cactus is edible, so you do not have to stick your fork in the small cactus you have next to the computer.

Surprisingly, this prickly plant is one of the healthiest foods that can be included in our daily diet, as it is rich in vitamins and nutrients and provides many additional benefits. Nopales, the shovel-shaped part of the cactus leaf is mainly served with eggs and salads, a food staple in Latin America.

As more people discover its great qualities, cactus-based foods and drinks make their appearance in grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets around the world.

What are prickly pears?

The Opuntia cactus (its scientific name) or prickly pear, or nopal in Mexico, is part of the family of cacti with more than 200 species native to the American continent.

They can be found from the southern United States to Patagonia, where they grow wild. It is also common to find them in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and North Africa, where they were introduced by the Spanish, five hundred years ago.

Benefits of edible cacti

Edible cacti contains phenolics and flavonoids, two compounds with antioxidant properties that help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer. In the June 2009 issue of “Plant Food for Human Nutrition,” it was said that phytochemicals in prickly pear slowed the growth of colon, liver, breast and prostate cancer cells without negatively impacting healthy cells.

Eating nopal cactus

Prickly pears have three different edible sections: the cladiolos, palas or stalks of the cactus (nopal), which would constitute the leaves; flower petals, which can be added to salads; and the prickly pear or the fruit.

When cooked, they have a flavour comparable to green beans and a texture similar to that of okra. Others say they have a nice lemon taste and are slightly crunchy like bell peppers.

Of the rest of cacti, only the fruits are usually consumed, as in the case of dragon fruit, pitaya of night cereus or Hylocereus undatus. Other succulent plants can also be edible such as the blue agave (with which tequila is made) or the maguey with which pulque or mezcal is made.

Preparing cactus-based foods

There are different ways to prepare cacti so that they don’t taste bland. It may seem intimidating at first, but it’s simpler than it sounds.

Before you eat prickly pear, its shovels or stalks should be washed well and cut before being cooked. They can be added to quesadillas, sauces, fajitas, salads or served as a garnish.

You can boil or grill them. Nopal can also be eaten raw, although the bitter taste may not excite everyone.

On a general note, nopal shovels pair well with the flavours of cheese, chilli peppers, cilantro, corn, eggs, lemon, lime, onions, oregano, salsa, chives, sweet peppers, tomato, tortillas and tropical fruits.

Here are some nopales recipes to get you started such as a slow cooker cactus chili from Allrecipes and nopales a la mexicana from Mexico In My Kitchen.


Cut the cactus into cubes and boil it in a copper pot with a little water and onion. The copper keeps the cactus green after cooking; otherwise, it turns a dull grey colour.

Let it simmer for about 40 minutes. Then drain it and let cool. One idea is to turn it into a salad, seasoned with salt and oregano for taste.

To do this, add the chopped onion, the sliced ​​tomatoes, pieces of fresh cheese and slices of avocado, before drizzling it with a little olive oil.

The best way to remove the stickiness is to grill it for a crisp, tender texture with a dash of olive oil and a hint of lemon.

Where to buy prickly pears

Perhaps the most important thing to know before you eat nopal cactus is to buy the prickly pears without thorns since removing them can be a real nightmare.

The small shovels of the nopal are the most succulent, delicately-flavoured and with the least thorns.

It is better to choose thin, firm shovels. If they are soft, cracked, or wilted, they are too old. Shovels are often sold whole or cut into strips or cubes and packaged for convenience.

Fresh edible cacti can be refrigerated for a week if they are tightly wrapped in plastic. The cactus is available in specialized and organic stores in the form of slices and cubes or juices, jam and canned to consume as needed.

Should you want to know more about cacti and succulents, make sure to check out our online bookstore. Feel free to take a look also at our Stocktake Sale!

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Telephone: 02 4777 4876 Fax:(02) 4777 5077