Native to Mexico but now found ‘round the world, flat-leafed nopal (opuntia) cactus was central to pre-Hispanic culture. Tenochtitlán, the Aztec city built in what is now Mexico City’s Historical Center, means “place of the cactus.” In addition to consuming nopal as food, Mesoamericans found varied ways to use this versatile plant: to treat wounds, to purify water, to fence farming fields. Mixed with quicklime it strengthened mortar and waterproofed whitewash paint. Today it is also used as food for livestock.
We see portrayals of nopal cactus so often in Mexico it is easy to overlook its significance. We see it on the flag as part of the national shield; it is portrayed on every Mexican coin in our pockets.
In high elevations of northeastern Morelos, mile after mile of gorgeous young bright-green nopal plants grow in straight unirrigated rows in the municipality of Tlayacapan. Neighboring Milpa Alta, the most rural of the Federal District’s 16 delegations (boroughs) will be hosting its Nopal Fair next month. In August, central Mexico will celebrate the fruit of the flat leafed cactus — the prickly pear – known in Spanish as “tuna” (not to be confused with tuna-fish, which in Spanish is “atún”). Ferias de la Tuna will be held in the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Morelos – all major centers of nopal production.
Nick Watson, long-time resident of Cuernavaca and a major exporter of nopal, says, “Nopal is a miracle food on the brink of worldwide discovery, already widely consumed. Known in much of the world as prickly pear cactus, nopal was proliferated shortly after the conquest by Spanish ship captains who valued the plant for its ability to stave off scurvy. Able to grow in desert conditions, Spaniards found it could be planted most anywhere their ships landed, providing a dependable source of vitamin C.”
“The most interesting part of this world-wide planting” said Watson, “is highly adaptable nopal morphed everywhere it was planted. In some places it’s almost unrecognizable only 500 years later. Some adaptations have long spines and some are smooth-leaved, some nopal grow very tall, others close to the ground. In Galapagos, where the nopal co-exists with the giant tortoise, nopal are tree-sized.”
We in the west are accustomed to describe food as sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Japan has another word to add to that list, umami. Umami – translated into English as “deliciousness” — corresponds to the taste glutamates leave in your mouth, coating your tongue. The first food we experience with umami is breast milk. Japanese describe nopal’s consistency as umami. Understandably, nopal is a popular Japanese food.
As if it’s nutritional and medicinal values were not sufficient, the nopal cactus is also home to the cochineal insect, one of Europe’s most valuable 16th- and 17th-century commodities. A quarter of the dried insects weight is carmine or a scarlet red dye. In the Middle Ages, Polish and North African cochineal was used in illustrating religious manuscripts but was rare, difficult to harvest and did not retain its color nearly as well as Mexican cochineal. Until artificial dyes were made in the 19th century, Mexican cochineal was traded on the London commodity exchange at roughly the same value per ounce as gold.
But today in central Mexican fields there is little evidence of cochineal. Harvested healthy paddles — nopal leaves — are clean, tender. “Their small spines are sufficient to hold evening dew and fields need no irrigation,” says Watson. “We use ancient methods of growing and fertilizing, obtaining the highest possible organic certification. When we started working with Morelos nopal farmers they were pleasantly surprised we wanted to learn from them about the way their ancestors farmed. We now use only sterile fertilizer, composted from cow and chicken manure. Old, tough paddles are chopped up, tilled back into the soil; we have no need for pesticides. We are now planting in previously unusable land.
“We’ve formed a co-op of Mexican farmers willing to use organic methods for growing and are thrilled with the results. Our company is also committed to exploring the medical value of nopal. In pre-Hispanic times this area of the world advanced the use of herbs and various barks and foods for their medicinal properties.
Nopal was used early on for the treatment of diabetes as well as many other diseases. Watson: “With the prevalence of diabetes in today’s world we worked with the University of New Mexico on a 2008 study that showed significant value of nopal for treating Type II diabetes and, by the way, for the relief of hangovers. There is also strong evidence for its anti-inflamatory properties.”
The NM study showed daily intake of grilled nopal significantly decreased the amount of insulin needed by patients with Type II diabetes.
Watson: “The demand for organic nopal now exceeds our ability to produce. We have large containers of nopal paddles shipping daily to ports in Los Angeles and New Jersey, destined for markets throughout the United States. But our long-term goal is to educate the public to see nopal as a daily ingredient. Nopal tortillas, nopal chips, nopal flour are already on your grocery shelves.”
Is nopal the miracle food of this century? Perhaps!