on cactus : 'Nopales' could be the next health-food craze
By CANDICE DYER
For The Times
Crisson tentatively touched a thorn and then yanked her hand back.
wouldn't know how to cook this," she said, referring to the
paddle-shaped arm of a prickly pear cactus, or nopal, one of Mexico's
signature vegetables known in Spanish as "nopales."
had the kind that's canned in brine, but I think I'd like it better
fresh if I knew how to get rid of these little stickers."
31, from Dahlonega, and her friend Amanda Daniel, who speaks fluent
Spanish, were browsing in the produce department of J&J Foods
in Gainesville. They looked to another shopper for advice.
you have to scrape the spines with a knife like this," explained
Belen Reyes, making rapid downward motions.
in Spanish translated by Daniel, Reyes, who is from Mexico, rattled
off the ways she enjoys preparing nopales (called "nopalitos"
in their sliced form): sauteed and mixed with scrambled eggs;
garnished with pico de gallo; deep-fried; basted with oil and
grilled alone or stuffed like a pita with cheese; served as a
side salad with steak at family cookouts.
even eat them raw as an appetizer to help my digestion and keep
me regular," she said proudly.
the main reason Reyes, a diabetic, consumes so much cactus is
the plant's apparent effectiveness in lowering blood sugar and
doctor in Mexico told me to eat nopales," she said. "My
blood sugar was 400 and now it's 200. I feel much better and don't
need as much insulin. It cleanses the blood and the system. Even
if it didn't, though, I would eat it anyway because it tastes
held up the nopal pad and beamed, looking for a moment like one
of the regal campesinas who still haul crops to market by burro
in Guanajuato. She was showing off the plant that, with its nutrients,
versatility and distinctive flavor, is expected to blossom into
the next health-food craze, like a Latin cousin to soy and hemp
prickly pear cactus belongs to the genus Opuntia, and the species
most commonly harvested for food is ficus-indica, which translates
as "Indian fig," which multitasks as a fibrous vegetable,
sweet fruit and rose-like flower.
are thought to help in the treatment of more than 100 ailments,
from hangovers to AIDS, and the sap doubles as an acne-fighting
soap and beauty aid. Still, the primary uses are for diabetes
and cholesterol management, an ancient Latin American home remedy
now under clinical study in the United States. One in three Americans
born in 2000 will develop diabetes, according to the Centers for
Disease Control, so herbalists are buzzing about a nopuntia-rich
Avila seemed bemused by this "discovery" of nopales,
which are as commonplace as potatoes or corn in the Mexican diet.
always eaten cactus in a lot of different forms as a regular part
of our cuisine, a staple," he said. "It seems to be
becoming a trend here now. My brother has an American friend who
is eating it regularly for his diabetes."
sells nopales products, including their sweet, low-cal fruit,
called "tunas," at his supermarket, El Sol de Mexico,
in Gainesville. He grew up in Zacatecas, which he said is the
second leading cactus-producing state in Mexico. "To us,
it's no big deal," he said. "We just eat it because
we like it."
fact, the cactus is to Mexico what apple pie is to the United
States. According to lore, the country's founders were looking
for an oracle's sign about where to build their capital. They
saw an eagle perched on a cactus that was growing out of rock
in the middle of a lagoon. The spot eventually became Mexico City,
and the cactus appears on the national seal and flag.
vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and other body boosters, prickly
pear cactus has been turning up in a variety of home remedies
and ritual potions since ancient Aztec times. About 20 years ago,
ethnobotanists began conducting clinical research to see if the
curanderas, or spiritual healers, were on to something. Many of
these findings are collected in "Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine"
(Healing Arts Press, 2004), by nutritionist Ran Knishinsky.
utility as a nutritional, high-fiber, low-fat food is amplified
by this unique and exquisite amino acid profile," he writes.
"Vegans and vegetarians ... will find in the nopal pads a
source of high-quality protein."
published in "Diabetes Care" and "The Journal of
Ethnopharmacology" support the effectiveness of the plant
in treating Type II Diabetes and in reducing glucose absorption
and improving insulin response in general.
suggests the following daily dosages for people working to manage
their blood sugar: 500 grams of broiled nopal pad or four ounces
of juice. Also, the plant's high flavonoid content may reduce
low-density lipids, or "bad" cholesterol. Knishinsky
recommends five to nine grams of prickly pear fruit pectin a day.
an experiment at Tulane University that did not have to scrounge
for volunteers, 55 subjects were given plenty of hard liquor and
sent to drink the night away in New Orleans for the sake of science.
Time magazine reported earlier this year that those who took prickly
pear cactus extract before the binge suffered less nausea and
dry-mouth the next day and boasted a 40 percent higher level of
C-reactive protein, which may play a role in hangovers.
many folks north of the border, unable to make the imaginative
leap past the thorns, still treat nopales as the porcupine of
something people here are acquiring a taste for," Avila said.
"In the beginning, it might taste weird and have a strange
texture, but you get used to it and then grow to like it a lot."
for a description, most cactus connoisseurs use phrases such as
"tangy green beans" with a "bell pepper aftertaste."
they belong to the succulent, or water-conserving, family of plants,
the cooked veggies have the viscous, gooey feel of okra.
is the way I usually prepare it for my family," said Sonia
Suarez, stirring the greens in a skillet of boiling water. A culinary
ambassador based in Athens, she travels around the state to hold
professional cooking demonstrations for Plantation Specialty Foods.
mixes the boiled nopalitos with garlic, diced tomato, onions,
jalapenos and Mexican cheese, to make a side salad or salsa-like
mother taught me how to make this, and her mother taught her,"
"The Essential Cuisines of Mexico," Diana Kennedy, the
Julia Child of kitchens south of the border, writes that this
simple recipe is her favorite way to prepare nopalitos and liven
up the colors of a dinner table spread.
how slick they are?" Suarez said. "I'm not using any
oil in this. You don't need to."
cactus craze started in the Southwest and is working its way east
with the immigration patterns of Hispanics, said Leo Martin, a
director of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.
Crisson and Amanda Daniel, who work together in a Gainesville
office and share a large circle of Latin-American friends, said
they welcome these additions to the local cuisine and culture.
read a survey that showed how salsa is outselling ketchup now
and tortillas outsell bread," Daniels said.
observing that Southerners and Latinos both value the sustaining
food of "hospitality," said it was her friends' gifts
of Hispanic food that finally lured her mountain-man father to
the table when he was dying of cancer and losing his appetite.
week I find some homemade ethnic snack waiting for me at work
and some invitation to dinner," she said. "These are
not just token gestures to satisfy some preconceived notion of
'mi casa es su casa.' No, the Latinos really mean it. I, personally,
have never been around people, other than my family, who are so
gracious with their food."
published Sunday, July 3, 2005