What Are Nopales and How Do You Cook Them?
My first bite of nopales, or prickly pear, almost tasted like poblano. There was a brightness there, though, and a familiar texture that I couldn’t quite place. The ingredient, which is frequently featured in Mexican dishes, is freshly prepared and served daily as an alternative protein filling at Tacos Chukis, a popular taqueria chain in Seattle. There, chefs spend mornings despining and grilling up cactus paddles, which can then replace meat in tacos and burritos. For Tacos Chukis’ owners, wife and husband team Laura Contreras and Roberto Salmerón, serving up nopales provides two benefits: a nostalgic taste for those who grew up eating the tangy, slightly bitter cactus, and a new experience for people like me, who have not yet been introduced to its unique charms.
“Growing up, I was not a fan. But like most kids, I just didn’t know any better,” Contreras said. “There wasn’t a lot of places to buy it here, so when my uncles would come from California, they would bring boxes of it. My grandma would chop them up and freeze them. When you needed a bag you would take it out and she would just boil them until they were tender.”
Nopales, when boiled, are comparable to okra. Their slight sliminess is usually the determining factor when it comes to whether someone will like prickly pear or not. But Contreras said that sliminess can usually be mitigated, either by rinsing the nopales or by grilling it, as Taco Chukis chefs do. And some people even embrace the slight slime by incorporating nopales into smoothies. Contreras compared the taste of the ingredient to green beans, but with an almost mushroom-like mouthfeel.
Nopales are traditionally included in a number of dishes, but growing up, Contreras said she had them most often with eggs or as part of a salad. At Tacos Chukis, you can even order a version of their tacos that uses a nopal in place of a tortilla. That option, Contreras said, is popular among customers who are trying to watch their carbohydrate intake.
“A super easy recipe is the cooked nopal, tomato, onion, cilantro and a splash of lime,” Contreras said. “It’s like a salad, and you can add cheese, you can add queso fresco, and you eat it with beans. Someone who wants to try it out with a super easy recipe, that’s a go-to.”
Home chefs can buy nopales in three different forms (depending on where they live and what’s available in their area’s farmers' markets or Hispanic grocery stores): with spines, despined and jarred or canned. Despining nopales can be an intimidating task, however, and it’s one that Contreras said she often skips herself. Some cooks even use a special knife to peel the spines off the cactus pads, but you can also use a regular knife to scrape the inedible parts away. If you want to avoid getting pricked altogether, however — either by the large thorns or the smaller, hairy variety — you can simply pick up a can, which is what Contreras usually finds herself reaching for at home.
“I readily go to that all the time. It’s nice because you can keep them in your pantry and they don’t lose that much of the flavor,” she said. “They sell them in the small jars, the larger jars, and you can also buy big cans of it too.”
If you do decide to try your hand at despining a prickly pear, you may want to wear gloves, or else risk a sore hand.
“They get into your fingers,” Salmerón said. “You have to be very careful when you’re peeling them.”
While shopping for prickly pear paddles, chef might also spot the cactus’s purple or green fruit, which is called the tuna. These fruits, which have a texture somewhere between a cucumber and watermelon, are delicious on their own, particularly when dusted with chili powder and accented with lime, Salmerón said. But they are also used in drinks, particularly margheritas. Chefs who spot the fruit should know that they still need to beware of spines, however.
“I remember being a kid and knowing that I liked them, but seeing a big basket of them at my grandma’s house in Mexico and being like, ‘Oh, I want them,’ and grabbing a handful and not realizing it’s covered in the little hairy spines,” Contreras said.
For those who grew up with nopales, the ingredient is a nostalgic comfort food, something that can remind you of shared mealtimes with family. But for those who haven’t tried prickly pear, Tacos Chukis and other Mexican restaurants can provide a fantastic introduction. And once you’ve tried the ingredient, you’ll find yourself wanting it more often.
“It’s a very versatile vegetable. You can use it in anything,” Salmerón said. “It’s something you don’t want often, but once you get a taste for it, you crave it sometimes.”