I love cactus! It has a fresh, green taste that is all its own. And it can be found right in our little community, no trip to the fruteria (greengrocers) necessary. We’ve even planted some cactus in our backyard, however, it will be YEARS before they are big enough to harvest from.
The nopal (cactus) is one of the fundamental symbols of Mexico. It is considered la planta de vida (life-giving plant) as it seems to never die. Fallen pencas (leaves) form new plants, therefore an apt symbol of the life-rebirth cycle found in the most ancient of Mexican myths.
According to legend, the first nopal (cactus) grew from Copil‘s heart, son of Malinalxochitl, the moon, and Chimalcuauhtli. Copil had attempted to murder his uncle Huitzilopochtli, the sun, because he had abandoned his mother. According to legend, Huitzilopochtli defeated his nephew and removed Copil’s heart, which was later buried. The next day, the first nopal appeared, complete with the thorns of a warrior and flowers that blossomed with the love Copil had shown in defending his mother. This nopal (cactus) was discovered by the wandering Aztecs. Atop the nopal was an eagle, devouring a serpent, over a lake, the sign the nomads had been waiting for.
To have la cara de nopal (the face of a cactus) is to say that one’s indigenous ancestry is evident. My husband has a decided cara de nopal and that isn’t a bad thing.
There is a technique however to harvesting. The pencas (leaves) should be a light green. Older pencas can be eaten, but they tend to have a bitter taste. The penca should be cut at the base, and handled gingerly. It is a cactus after all and there are espinas (thorns).
Once a good number have been collected, it’s time to despina (remove the thorns). It isn’t a terribly difficult process and practice makes perfect. The base of the thorn is cut, away from the cutter, and discarded. The outside edge is also skinned off. My husband always does this outside–less clean up involved. And that’s pretty much it. The cactus is ready for cooking.
Cactus can be cooked as an entire leaf on the comal (griddle) or cut into pieces. It can be boiled or basted in tripa (intestine) juice, which is my favorite manner of preparation. It can be eaten warm or cold, used like a tortilla around cheese–a nopaldilla if you will–eaten as a salad with tomato and chili, or with beans and onions or ..well you get the idea.
A nice size bag of the nopales, tomato, onion and yellow chili mixture can be bought from the corner vendor for 10 pesos. Fast-food at its best!
Cactus also provides fruit in season, tunas (See Picking Tunas), the heart of Copil. Just more evidence that even in the desert, “the earth provides enough for every man’s need” –Mathama Gandhi.