Nopales, the vegetable made from segments of the prickly pear, is enjoyed all around Mexico, not just Oaxaca. Of course, you can count on Oaxacan chefs to put their own special spin on it.Nopales are the prickly fruits that can be seen on some cactusesthey’re also known as cactus figs and Indian figs, as well as tuna. The fruits are carefully peeled to remove the spines before eating. We mentioned the aguas frescas that can be made from tuna in a previous post (“From thirst-quenching to intoxicating: the drinks of Oaxaca”), but there are many more options for enjoying nopales. Due to the variety of uses, nopales are usually bought fresh. However, they can also be bought in bottles or even cans. Occasionally dried nopales will be available.Nopalitos are made with diced nopales. The taste can be compared to green beans, but the mucilage (the gluey substance produced by most plants in some quantity) is more noticeable in nopalitos. Nopales can also be eaten in conjunction with eggs (huevos con nopales), meat (carne con nopales), and tacos (tacos de nopales). They are also commonly found in salads along with panela cheese, a smooth white cheese that forms to the shape of the basket that it’s carried in.The most obvious health benefit to nopales is their high fiber, both insoluble and especially soluble. The fruit is also high in vitamins A, C, K, B6, and riboflavin, as well as minerals like magnesium, manganese, and potassium. Although the fruit is naturally high in calcium, its form (calcium oxalate) means it cannot be easily dissolved or absorbed within the body. The low carbohydrate level of nopales is another health benefit.It’s important to pick the fruit at the right timeduring the spring, when the pears are at their most tender. However, some people prefer to eat them either before or after this stage, depending on the dish and on their own personal tastes.

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