Out of all the cactus species in the world, only a select few are considered edible for humans.
One of the most popular cactus species used in Mexican and some Central and South American cuisines is the prickly pear cactus.
Aside from its edible fruit, the prickly pear cactus’ pads, or nopales, are also used in many Mexican delicacies.
Cactus pads have a mildly sour or bitter taste, quite similar to certain vegetables like green beans or asparagus. Their fruit, on the other hand, is quite sweet, even when eaten raw.
In this article, we will discuss more what a cactus tastes like, whether all cacti can be eaten, and how cactus is usually prepared when used in food.
If you wish to learn more about this topic, just keep on reading.
Is it safe to eat cactus?
Yes, it is safe to eat cacti, but not all parts of them can be eaten uncooked. Furthermore, some parts can have an unpleasant taste, so even if they can technically be eaten without making you sick, you will probably not want to eat them anyway.
What types of cacti are safe to eat?
Different types of cacti work for different types of dishes, and how they are eaten will depend on the availability of the species in that area.
Common cacti that are eaten include the dragon fruit cactus, which has bright pink fruits that taste like melons when eaten raw.
Another cactus whose fruits and pads are both used in Mexican cuisine is the prickly pear cactus.
The organ pipe cactus is a large cactus variety that is eaten both raw and cooked, while the Peruvian apple cactus has fruit that is similar in texture and taste to normal apples.
The barrel cactus has edible fruits that look a bit like baby pineapples.
Are any cacti poisonous when eaten?
When it comes to the fruit of different types of cacti, all of them are safe to eat. The question should rather be whether all cactus fruits are tasty. Although they are all considered fruit, some of them may taste very bitter and unpleasant.
As for the pads, or nopales, try to stick only to the pads of the prickly pear cactus, because that variety has been eaten by the people of Mexico and Central and South America for hundreds of years.
There are cactus species whose pads can make you very sick, so if you are feeling adventurous and willing to give cactus a try, make sure you buy your nopales from a reputable source such as your local Mexican store. Do not go into the wild and forage them yourself, because you might end up grabbing the wrong type of cactus.
What does cactus taste like?
The edible cactus varieties, such as the prickly pear, have a mild flavor that is somewhat sour. The idea of eating cactus may seem quite strange at first but the flavor is actually unobtrusive and should not be overwhelming at all. The taste is quite similar to okra, asparagus or green beans.
The texture of the cactus will depend on the preparation of the dish. When eaten raw, it is crisp and has a coating similar to the gelatinous coating of okra or tomato. There will always be a bit of a slimy texture to cactus flesh, and this is normal. Some methods of preparation can reduce the sliminess, but you might have difficulty removing that texture completely.
Can you eat cactus raw?
Yes, some types of cactus can be eaten raw and this has been practiced by many Mexican and South American people for centuries.
Even if cactus pads are typically eaten cooked, the pads of the prickly pear cactus can be eaten raw.
If you want more tender cactus preparation, cooking the pads will soften the tough outer skin, making them easier on those with sensitive stomachs.
Where can edible cactus be found?
Most grocery stores carry canned nopales, but if yours does not, try looking at your local Mexican or South American grocery stores.
Fresh nopales can be found in local farmer’s markets and in specialty grocery stores.
You can also forage in the wild for fresh cactus but only do this with someone who has vast experience in identifying and foraging wild cacti.
What are the benefits of eating cactus?
The nopales of the most commonly eaten cactus, the prickly pear, are used widely in Latin American cuisine and often served with eggs or incorporated into salads because of their many health benefits.
This cactus is rich in phytonutrients and can also help to lower sugar and cholesterol levels. This is due to the pectin and fiber content of the cactus, which removes cholesterol from the blood while controlling the sugar in the body by slowing the digestion of carbohydrates. This is incredibly helpful for those with diabetes or high blood glucose levels.
Aside from these benefits, cacti also provide calcium, iron, sodium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A and C.
How can cactus be eaten?
There are many different ways to prepare cactus for eating. They can also be seasoned to make them more palatable. It might seem strange at first, but the more you prepare and eat cactus, the easier and more natural it will become.
You can use prickly pear cactus shoots as a vegetable. These nopales do not have stem parts that might be tough like some other vegetables do.
If there are still spines on the nopales, scrape them off using a knife. Keep scraping until the dark areas from where the spines grew are completely gone. You might want to wear gloves when you do this so you do not get pricked.
After you have removed the spines and the dark spots, wash the nopales thoroughly in water, and you can then cook them however you want to. They are typically boiled in water or grilled, then chopped into smaller pieces, and incorporated into salads, fajitas, tacos, quesadillas, sauces, or used as a garnish on other dishes.
You can also eat the nopales raw, but the slightly sour or bitter taste may not be for everyone.
The blandest flavor of the prickly pear cactus nopales will go really well with the flavors of tropical fruits, tortillas, tomatoes, sweet peppers, chives, salsa, oregano, onions, lime, lemon, eggs, corn, cilantro, chilis, and cheese.
Another way to prepare cactus is to make candy. Cactus candy is made from the water-retaining stem of the Ferocactus and the Echinocactus. These cactus varieties contain a lot of water and make great candies. They have been used to make sweet treats even by the Native Americans.
This is done by first removing the thorns from the cactus and then cutting the cactus ribs lengthwise. The bottom is then cut off and the cactus is cut into strips and then into even smaller pieces. This process happens at the site of harvest because the cactus pieces are much easier to transport than the entire cactus.
They are then cooked into candy, drained, and are ready to be eaten.
Lastly, the cactus can also be consumed as a beverage. There are drinks made from cacti that are quite popular in Europe. Cacti are not traditionally made into beverages in Latin American cuisine and are more of a novelty beverage that is sold to the general public.
Cactus pads have a mild, sour or bitter taste when eaten, similar to the taste of green beans, asparagus or okra. Most cactus pads have a slimy texture, especially when eaten raw, so if you have a problem with that mouth-feel, you might prefer the cactus pad boiled or grilled first before incorporating it into your food.
Cactus fruits usually have a sweet taste that resembles a watermelon.
Eating cactus has plenty of health benefits: it can help lower both cholesterol and sugar levels in the body. Cactus also contains lots of fiber and vitamins.
Cactus pads are prepared either like a vegetable that you can mix into salads, sauces and other Latin American dishes or as candy that children will love.
You can get edible cactus at your local Mexican stores. You can also forage them from the wild yourself, but you need to be with people who know how to identify edible cacti so that you do not end up eating one that might make you sick.
If you have an adventurous palate, give cactus a try – you might like it!
Image: istockphoto.com / LarisaBlinova