Sunday, September 2, 2012

The ‘Nopal’ Cactus: symbol of Mexican cuisine

The pleasurable mole poblano, the irreplaceable tortillas and the universally enjoyed pico de gallo salsa are just a tiny sampling of Mexican cuisine, which in 2010 was included by UNESCO on the list of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

That explosion of strong, intense and spicy flavors is unequivocal proof of cultural blending and the mixture of pre-Hispanic traditions with those of the Spanish colony. But where Mexico has broken the mold – or perhaps the pot – is in the use of nopales, a type of cactus also known as prickly pear and in Spanish as cactus, tuna o chumbera.

It seems almost an absurd ingredient for cooking – but for the culinary creativity of the Mexicans, who have made the cactus a plant of life, with almost mythological roots, given that when it dries, it generates a new one. The nopal even appears as a symbol in Mexico’s national emblem.

Tips for cooking nopales

Ideally it is best to boil the nopales in a copper pot, adding, in addition to water, salt to taste. Cooking takes about 10 minutes after the first boil, or until they are tender. They are then drained and rinsed with cold water.
If a copper pot is not handy, then a pinch of baking soda should be added when it boils.
To keep a slimy texture from developing on the nopalitos while boiling, add the skins of a couple of green tomatoes.
To slice nopales into julienne slices, first cut in half vertically, then slice those halves horizontally.

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