Nopal Cactus: What is it? How do we use it?

The nopal cactus, one of the many gifts Mexico has awarded the world. This incredibly versatile plant is also known in English as prickly pear cactus, which is usually eaten when it’s at a young stage. Nopal is a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine and it has been for centuries, making it one of the original Mexican snacks. When walking down the colorful Mexican streets, finding fresh nopales is quite an easy mission. Cleaned of spikes, sliced and covered with your favorite toppings such as squeezed lime, chili, and fresh cheese, makes for the ideal on-the-go veggie snack. However, this is just one of the many recipes you’ll find for our beloved nopal. How do we use the nopal cactus? The nopal gets utilized in Mexico from sunrise to sunset. Huevos con nopales or “eggs with nopal” are a quintessential breakfast menu item in most Mexican households. Later on, in the day, one can feast upon a delicious carne con nopales or “steak with nopal”, possibly have it as a side dish or its own, sliced into cubes and tossed in a salad with panela cheese or shallow fried with tomato and onions. Being quite a noble ingredient, the nopal does not require chef-like skills in order to create an exquisite dish. As we may all know, the taco is king in Mexico (and everywhere else, depending on who you ask), so it comes as no surprise that the nopal taco not only exists but is a favorite amongst vegans and vegetarians alike (and possibly some meat-eaters as well). Now, when speaking about Mexican food, it is very rare to find a dish that feels complete without any sauce or salsa, accompanying it. In fact, certain Mexicans say that the integrity of a dish, such as a taco, may rely on the salsa one chooses. Since we are now discussing all things nopal related, it may please you to learn that yes, the nopal salsa is also an indispensable element of this cuisine. And a great salsa if you ask us! The range of this wonderful ingredient does not end here, it may take some studying into traditional Mexican recipes to find the root of its ancestral flavors, but anyone with an imagination can make a magical dish out of it. What are the befits of the nopal cactus? Aside from being the perfect ingredient to enhance any dish with its slightly tart flavor, the nopal cactus holds a myriad of benefits. Who doesn’t like a vegan ingredient that can also prevent the contraction of a virus? That’s right, some preliminary research has shown that the nopal contains antiviral properties against herpes simplex virus (HSV), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and even HIV. The nopal is a natural snack that is not only tough on viruses but also:
  • Is an antioxidant that reduces the stress caused by free radicals.
  • Regulates and decreases blood sugar, making it a great treat for someone with diabetes.
  • Can be used to treat the uncomfortable problem some experience of an enlarged prostate with fewer side effects than conventional medications.
  • Is a natural aid to lower bad cholesterol with almost no side effects; unlike the medications currently used for the same treatment.
  • Helps alleviate the pesky side effects of a night of heavy drinking. However — in order to kick a hangover to the curve, one must take the nopal extract before drinking.
At this point you must be thinking, “Is this miraculous plant a superfood?” and the answer to that is a resounding, yes! There is a small catch though — the superfood status is only given to its powder presentation, which is high-fiber and high-calcium. Not bad for a little desert plant! The Nopal cactus, the gift that keeps on giving. As we have learned, the nopal cactus may start off as a prickly stand for desert birds to rest on, but it is elevated to its true potential one it is transported into the kitchen. Fried, diced, raw, or cooked — no matter the state of your preference, the nopal delivers not only in taste but in health benefits by the bulk. Imagine having an unsuspecting breakfast of eggs with nopales whilst being protected by several viruses, oxidizing free radicals, bad cholesterol, and possibly a hangover caused by the drinking you’ll be doing later that day. No wonder it holds a special place in the center of the Mexican flag!

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