Cooking Like a Mexican

June 12, 2017
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

I couldn’t have been more surprise when I read an article about Nopalea C, a beer that is made with Mexican nopales (as in cactus).

Nopalea beer is the result of a project that was started in 2012, by the Mexican business Nopalea, Prague University and the Czech Health System, and it is the first beer made from nopales. This drink is now being produced in the Czech Republic with nopal that is harvested in Mexico and exported over there.

The nopal is a member of the cactus family that’s grown here in Mexico. It is often seen in the form of bushes or plants. Wild populations of cactus can grow in almost all ecological conditions in our country, with variations in temperature and rainfall. This cactus grows almost in every corner of Mexico but mostly in the states of San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Puebla, Michoacán, Aguascalientes, Baja California, Mexico City and Zacatecas.

nopales.JPGAccording to experts, the first nopales date back about 5,000 years ago. In ancient Mexico, the juice of the leaves was spread on the wheels of vehicles to prevent overuse.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Franciscans established missions in Baja and adjacent areas, they found that these cacti were useful as a source of “mucilaginous,” a material that was used as glue in the adobe bricks used to build the missions.

The nopal is intended primarily for human consumption, whether served fresh in  salads, cooked as part of various dishes, or packed in brine, vinegar and jam. We Mexicans like to eat it with eggs, juiced and in many other ways.

The nopal also has healing properties. The Aztecs used it for many medicinal purposes: to control a fever they drank the juice; the cactus mucilage (or slime, for lack of a better word) was used to treat cracked lips; diarrhea was cured with the flesh of the plant; and the thorns were used to clean infections. They also used the leaves of the cactus to relieve inflammation, and the roots to treat hernias, liver irritation, stomach ulcers and skin damage from sun exposure.

Nopal is also a great source of fiber, both soluble and insoluble, which helps cleanse the colon. Insoluble fiber can prevent and relieve constipation and hemorrhoids, and at the same time help prevents colon cancer. Soluble fibers have been used in many conditions because their presence retards the gastrointestinal tract and keeps nutrients from being absorbed too quickly.

Nopal can also help fight obesity. It has become somewhat of a diet fad to eat a cactus with orange juice or some other fruit. The large amount of fiber the plant has helps the body absorb nutrients. Also, the insoluble fibers create a feeling of fullness, helping people eat less.

The amino acids, fiber, and niacin contained in nopal prevent excess blood sugar that becomes fat, while at the same time metabolizing fat and fatty acids, reducing cholesterol.

Nopal is a natural antibiotic; it slows or stops the growth of several bacterial strains. Both eating nopal and applying the “slime” from the cactus leaves have beneficial effects on wounds and skin infections.

It also helps people with diabetes. The nopal helps stabilize and regulate blood sugar level. The hypoglycemic power of nopal has been scientifically proven as an effective treatment for the prevention of diabetes. Studies have shown that eating nopal before each meal for 10 days helps people lose weight and reduces the concentrations of glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides in the body. (This has been seen only in individuals who are insulin resistant, or in patients with Type II diabetes.)

Finally, the nopal plant fibers and mucilage control excess gastric acid, preventing gastric ulcers and all sorts of stomach conditions. Nopal contains vitamins A, B  and C, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and iron. Toxins from alcohol and cigarette smoke that inhibit the body's immune system are removed by the nopales.

The nopal’s tender and fleshy pads are sold as a vegetable; they can be pickled, cooked broths and soups, in salads or cooked in main dishes, such as appetizers, sauces, beverages, desserts, jams and endless food uses that can be given to this plant so rich in properties. Nopales is so important to us that, the Mexican flag has it as part of our national shield.

There is only one tiny problem with nopales and it is that many people find the taste of the slimy part a bit unpleasant, and that making the smoothie stays there. But there are ways to get rid of it, by frizzing, or to bake it, or use lime juice, while washing it after cut it in slices or dices. Another way, but only when you are going to have them as salad, is to boil them with salt. The nopal pills or nopal dehydrated powder has come to offer a solution to this problem. The benefits you can get from this Mexican treasure are worth the effort.

Nopales Salad

6 pieces of nopales (you can find these at Walmart)

1 small onion

2 serrano chiles

2 small tomatoes

1 bunch of cilantro, washed and disinfected

Juice of 1 lemon

Olive oil

Oregano

Salt

Pepper

1 ripe avocado

Panela or feta cheese, diced (optional)

Procedure:

1. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and the serrano chiles.

2. Slice the nopales leaves, onion, tomato and chiles into thin strips.

3. Place the onions and chiles in a bowl. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano and let it marinate while you cook the nopales leaves.

4. Boil the nopales in salt water. Don’t overcook them; they have to keep a firm consistence. When the nopales are done, pass them through a sieve and rinse under running cold water, then drain well and place in a bowl.

5. Add the onions, tomato and chopped cilantro to the bowl with the marinated nopales, and stir everything.

6. Top with sliced avocado and diced cheese.

This nopales salad is a great side for grilled meat, fried fish, fish fillet or whatever you want.