Sonoran Desert Heritage Foods: Memories of the Nopal

by Roxanne Garcia

Growing up on the farm, all the prickly pear cactus or nopales were either in our backyard or alongside the ditchbank and were never more than a few feet tall. We kids considered them a nuisance, we were always afraid of their prickly spines. But my abuela (grandmother) showed no fear. I remember watching her make her way to the cacti wielding a big machete. To her most everything that was on the farm had a purpose and the cactus was to be eaten, especially during Lent.

I remember her looking over the pads and, with a quick swipe, slicing them off just above the point where they were attached to the much larger plant. She explained that leaving a nub is essential for another pad to grow. Once her basket was full she would make her way to an outside table where she would carefully and with quick work (much to my amazement) cut off all the aguates or spines and pile the pads neatly into a bowl. The bowl was taken to the kitchen, where she would with ninja-like quality dice the nopales into small, even squares. These we would toss in a salad or, at night, we would have nopales y tomates as a side dish. Leftovers were always canned or processed for later use.

The nopal, or prickly pear cactus, is a versatile vegetable that touts various health benefits. The pads are high in vitamins A, C, and B complex as well as iron, and they are known to combat inflammation, diabetes and ulcers. I was lucky to have had nopales in my diet; The cacti grow like weeds across the desert, but only natives know how to cook and eat them, and fewer still do the harvesting. Fortunately for us, though, there are still those fearless people who will brave the aguates and bring their harvest to us week after week, and we can find those bright green pads and their red ruby fruits (called tunas) in Mexican markets and weekly at the Tucson Farmers’ Markets. The red ruby fruits are what is used in prickly pear syrup, jams and jellies.

If you feel adventurous and want to experience true heritage foods like nopales, visit Elizabeth’s Garden at the Oro Valley Farmers’ Market on a Saturday. When choosing a pad (or paddles, as they are sometimes called), look for one that is hand-sized and has been stripped of all its spikes and nobs. Once you get them home the nopales may be cooked by either boiling or grilling. As a kid I preferred them boiled. I really didn’t like the mucilaginous liquid that would seep out, and boiling does help to remove that. Some people (like my abuelita) eat them raw with a sprinkle of salt. For prickly pear syrup, jams and jellies: We-b-Jammin Farms has a nice selection at Friday, Saturday and Sunday Markets.

When I think about the Sonoran desert and true heritage foods, I think first of nopales and tunas. Then I think of my abuelita, Genoveba Apodaca, and her machete. And I am proud.