An introduction to cooking with cacti

While many consider the versatile corn to be the main plant in Mexican cuisine, the cactus holds a more symbolic role for many Mexicans.

You can literally see this by examining the Mexican flag, which depicts a prickly pear tree on top of which an eagle perches as it devours a snake. The image commemorates how the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in the 1300s. According to legend, the wandering Aztecs would know where to build their new city when they spotted an eagle perched on a cactus.

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“The cactus is our greatest culinary representation in Mexico and a story you learn growing up since you were a kid,” said Alex Tellez, executive chef of Sor Ynez, a traditional Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia.

“The cactus is our biggest food representation in Mexico and a story you learn growing up since you were a kid.”

Nopales were a staple of Tellez’s childhood cuisine, although he didn’t see many cacti around his hometown of Mexico City. Yet whenever he visited his extended family in nearby towns like Tlaxcala, Tellez was able to witness firsthand the formidable task of harvesting these prickly succulents.

“It was very intimidating,” he said. “I remember my grandfather and my uncles taking these super sharp machetes, cutting [the cactus] fast enough and catch it with a basket. Then my grandmother held the cactus, cleaned it and cut it herself.”

Chef Alex Tellez (Neal Santos)

From these fierce origins, Tellez’s grandmother, aunts, and great-aunts manipulated the fiber- and antioxidant-rich nopales into every imaginable edible form. Made into smoothies with celery, parsley, cucumber and fresh orange juice for all day hydration; sliced ​​raw to give a tangy, crunchy freshness to salads; stir-fried and incorporated into soup or scrambled eggs; marinated quickly (in escabeche); or braised or grilled then nestled in tacos — ¡lo que quieras, por supuesto!

A labor of love

You don’t need to wield a machete when mining the produce aisles of the supermarket for nopales; (luckily) you’ll usually find clamps near the screen. When selecting cacti, Tellez recommends looking for medium or large flat paddles that are easier to trim. However, you “need to feel comfortable and confident touching the cactus to clean it,” Tellez said. (I would also recommend a pair of clean gardening gloves.) To remove the thorns, hold the end of the paddle and scrape them away from the direction they grow using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler.

You don’t need to wield a machete when mining the produce aisles of the supermarket for nopales.

Cactus resembles moisture-rich okra, not least for its characteristic slimy texture, which some find off-putting. (Cacti produce this sticky liquid, known as mucilage, to seal water inside, which helps them survive in dry desert conditions.) To eliminate this, Tellez suggests popping the nopales for five good minutes on medium-high heat, then rinse them thoroughly. in the sink. From there, your imagination is the limit.

At the year-old Philly Restaurant in Tellez, pan-fried nopales top tlayacos (boat-shaped masa cakes) with black beans and queso fresco. He loves adding pickled cactus (recipe below) to carnitas, birria or barbacoa tacos to cut the fat from the meat. He also steams chopped nopales in banana leaves with eggplant, squash and celeriac for a vegan mixiote; add raw slices to a vibrant radish salad with crumbled feta, lime juice and olive oil; and mashed raw cactus with coriander leaves to mix into Sor Ynez’ green-hued soft tortillas. It’s all part of a larger commitment to educating diners about Tellez’s traditional vegetable-rich cuisine of Mexico.

“We do traditional Mexican food, which has a lot of vegetables, and people were so confused at first, like, ‘I thought you were a Mexican restaurant!'” he said. “I’m using this experience to educate people and share knowledge with all these different ingredients. We’re getting busier, so I think it’s working.”

A family recipe

Perhaps Tellez’s favorite use for nopales – and the way he converts the aversion to cacti – is through his great-aunt’s nopales en escabeche, a quick and salty pickle seasoned with Mexican oregano, garlic and black peppercorns. For best results, let it sit for three days in the refrigerator.


Recipe: Nopales en Escabeche (Marinated Cactus)
By Alex Tellez, Executive Chef of Sor Ynez, Philadelphia

Preparation time

30 minutes, more ideally 3 days of stripping


  • 2-3 large cactus paddles (4 cups diced)
  • Olive oil, as needed
  • 1 large carrot, cut into 1/8-inch pieces (see cook’s notes)
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 4-5 whole peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or 1 sliced ​​serrano pepper (optional, for heat)
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (see cook’s notes)
  • 1 bay leaf


  1. Place the cactus palette flat on a large cutting board lined with paper towel. Wear clean gardening gloves, hold one end and scrape off the thorns with a vegetable peeler (my favorite weapon) or a sharp knife held at an angle. Pick up the trimmings in the paper towel and throw them away. Cut the cactus into small pieces or cut it into strips if you plan to use the pickles for tacos. Taste one; it’s a bit like sour pepper, isn’t it?
  2. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add a few teaspoons of olive oil and sauté the cactus for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until it has lost its bright green color and released a good amount of gooey liquid. Remove from the heat, then pour the cactus into a colander and rinse it for a good 30 seconds under cold water. Add the rinsed cactus to a large heatproof bowl and set aside.
  3. Return the pan to medium heat and add a little more olive oil along with the sliced ​​carrots and onion. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften, 2-3 minutes, then add to bowl with cactus.
  4. In a medium saucepan with lid, add vinegar, water, salt, peppercorns, garlic, oregano and bay leaf. Stir to begin to dissolve the salt, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. Remove from fire. Pour the hot brine over it and let the vegetables cool to room temperature with the liquid. You can eat them right away or transfer the cooled pickles to deli containers or mason jars, filling them to about 1 inch from the top and being careful to completely submerge the vegetables. Film, then place them in the refrigerator. (For tastier results, Tellez suggests letting the pickles sit at least overnight — or ideally three days.)

Cook’s Notes
“It must be Mexican,” Tellez says of the oregano.

I like to cut the carrot with a slight bias for prettiness.

My local Mexican grocery store not only sells cactus paddles, but also thankfully pre-cut and pre-diced bags of cactus (in case you don’t feel up to the task of cleaning those prickly buggers).

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