Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Make Way for Nopal, A Tasty, Prickly Pear Delight the Oval-Shaped Cactus, Grown in Mexico and Prized by Cooks There, May Appear at a Supermarket near You

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Make Way for Nopal, A Tasty, Prickly Pear Delight the Oval-Shaped Cactus, Grown in Mexico and Prized by Cooks There, May Appear at a Supermarket near You

Article excerpt

A nondescript community surrounded by dry, scrubby hills at a 40-minute drive southeast of the Mexican capital, Milpa Alta doesn't look like the center of anything the world could be too interested in. But the ever-expanding rows of prickly pear cactus plants growing on virtually every square yard of the community's open space is out to change that. Like Salinas with its lettuce and Watsonville with its artichokes, Milpa Alta is the nopal capital of the world - a fact that is putting this town of 70,000 people on the world's vegetable and culinary maps. Nopal - pronounced "no-pall" or "no-pall-ess" in the plural - is the name from the indigenous Nahuatl language for the prickly pear cactus with its flat, oval leaves that adorns the Mexican flag. By extension, it is the name given the cactus's young, juicy leaves. Learn to say it, because the de-needled nopal leaf, which once graced the finest dishes of the Aztec emperors, is making its way from the fields and markets of Mexico to the supermarkets of the United States and beyond. Soon it's likely to turn up in your salad, as part of a casserole - or as a refreshing drink at your favorite Tex-Mex hangout. "All you have to do is take off the needles, and it's ready," says Marcos Cruz Ramirez, a Milpa Alta nopal producer. "You can slice it, eat it raw, cook it, roast it, squeeze it, puree it, or dry it. And whatever you do, it's tasty while high in vitamins and low in calories. That," he adds with a grin, "makes nopal a food for today." Apparently Mr. Cruz's pitch isn't just the zealot's hype. From a few plants tried out in 1938 after other crops failed in the area's dry, rocky soil, Milpa Alta's nopal production has grown to surpass 150,000 tons a year. The area's nopal fields have doubled over the last decade to 20,000 acres. And with weekly exports to the US and Europe of 50 tons considered only the beginning, local growers are certain production will continue its surge. Why the nopal, and why now? From nopal producers to some of Mexico's finest chefs, all agree the nopal is a quintessential Mexican food and culinary ingredient that not only adds a tasty succulence to salads and hot dishes, but it is also right for an era of "lite cuisine." "My mother used to go out into the hills to gather the wild nopales, but now it's in the markets and even the supermarkets," says Maria Gutierrez, whose husband grows about 5 acres of nopal in Milpa Alta. Mrs. Gutierrez says she uses nopal three to four times a week in her cooking. "It's a nice, tasty green for many dishes, and it makes a nice pie or marmalade," she says. Her favorite use of the cactus leaf, nopalitos (small nopales), is to stuff it with tuna and cheese. For years, and as legions of Mexicans moved from the countryside and up into the urban middle class, the nopal suffered from its reputation as a food for the rural poor. …
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.