Dulce Maria Morales sits at our daily Emiliano Zapata Mercado removing the spines from nopal cactus pads (prickly pear cactus) to prepare them for sale. She and her family have been part of this market for years. When I first came to Mexico, I asked her what to do with these lovely green pads. Now after many meals which have included various preparations, I love this food. I have eaten it raw, in green juices, chopped as a salad with onions and tomatoes, mixed with scrambled eggs, steamed with rice and mole, and added to stews. If you do not like its slightly mucilaginous texture then eating it grilled is best. It is a versatile vegetable as well as a good source of calcium, magnesium, and daily fiber and is used for traditional medicine and animal fodder as well. The fruit of the nopal called “tuna” when peeled and eaten cold is most refreshing.
The nopal cactus is important in the history of Mexico. Thought to have been domesticated over 9000 years ago, it has been discovered as part of the Mayan and Aztec cultures. The symbols on the Mexican flag include the nopal cactus. This symbology goes far back into Aztec history. The first flag was used in 1821 during the War for Independence which began in 1810. The name nopal comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language and means “tree that is of pads” from the shape of the plant.
There are over 8000 nopal farmers in Mexico mostly in the arid central valley. In addition to producing nopal for consumption by people and animals, some of these farms work to produce an insect that lives on the cactus and can be dried and processed into the natural carmine dye, also known as cochineal. It takes about 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal dye which yields shades of red, crimson, and scarlet depending on the material being dyed.
Mexico has had a monopoly on this dye since when the Mayans used it to color wool and cotton fabric which were made into clothing and blankets. After the War of Independence of 1812 however, this monopoly declined as other countries, specifically Spain, Guatemala, and North Africa began their own productions. Over the years, the popularity of cochineal waned due to the invention of synthetic dyes. Some towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca are still working in handmade textiles using this cochineal dye. Its use is beginning to increase however as many commercial synthetic red dyes and food coloring have been found to be carcinogenic.