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Cactus pads or nopales, are the stems of the prickly pear cactus, which is a member of the Opuntia species of cactus. The Opuntia cactus pad is edible, but those producing prickly pears, Opuntia ficus-indica are deliberately farmed for cactus pads. Use of the cactus pad in Mexican cuisine is legendary and have migrated into other types of cuisine because of their interesting taste and texture.
The cactus pad is a vegetable, with a piquant or slightly lemon taste. When uncooked, they are somewhat jellied or mucilaginous, and exude a liquid similar to aloe vera. In fact this liquid has been used much in the same way as aloe vera in alternative medicine to help heal sores and burns. Most don’t like the texture of raw cactus pads and prefer them cooked, which helps to absorb the liquid.
In Mexican cuisine, several dishes made from cactus pads are quite popular. Eggs with nopales and nopales tacos are both common. Cactus pads also are added to soups, salads or stews for extra flavor. They’re undoubtedly nutritious with a scant eleven calories per half cup serving. They thus make for excellent diet food, but may be less nutritious depending on their preparation.
You may be able to find cactus pads in local grocery stores, particularly if you live in the Southwest United States or in California. If you can’t find them there, your best resource can be Mexican and Latin American grocery stores, since cactus pads are such a common ingredient. Most cactus pads are sold with the spines removed, and you can even find canned varieties. If you’re a beginner, it’s probably best to start with peeled or spineless cactus pads. Old pros may want to peel off the spines themselves, a somewhat tricky process.
As a vegetable, the cactus pad is a very interesting food. They are one of the only plants where different parts are used as vegetable and as fruit. Cactus pads shouldn’t be confused with the prickly pear fruit that Opuntia ficus-indica also produces. Prickly pear and cactus pads have two very different tastes, though mixing them together in a salad or salsa can be an interesting culinary statement.
When you choose cactus pads from the store, you want to look for pads that are nicely green and have no blemishes. If you wrap them in a wet paper towel, they’ll usually keep well in the refrigerator for about a week.
While you can try cactus pads in Mexican recipes, consider some modern adaptations like pineapple and cactus pad salsa or cactus pad tempura. One of the authoritative books on cooking with both fruit and vegetable of Opuntia is The Prickly Pear Cookbook written by Carolyn Niethammer.