Garcia Ita Garcia woke up to a dark, inky sky with stars. In a quiet moment, she retrieved the flashlight on the table by her bed, put on her shoes, and went out into the hot desert air. She walked to a made-up kitchen. Within, Garcia sat down on the chair made of plastic and reached for a giant bucket, and carefully grabbed one of the Nopal (pad of pear cactus with prickly edges) at the perfect position to keep away from its thorns. Utilizing a small pocket knife, she shrewdly made quick and angled movements that turned around the Pear-shaped Nopal just slightly to trim the thorns perfectly.
When the work was done, Garcia tossed it into the burlap bag and began. It was only 03:00, and she had just three hours stranded until the truck reached the ranch belonging to her family. It was there to take her precious cargo, eleven bags total, to the marketplace. Like her forebears, Garcia continues a long-standing tradition of harvesting Nopales, the most cherished food essentials.
What took Garcia just five seconds was a challenge for me, the untrained guest, 5 minutes – and I still needed to get the correct answer. Garcia was astonished at me when I presented her with my cut nopal. Although it was not exactly what I expected, the Nopal performed flawlessly as a component of the salad of nopales (cactus salad) we cooked to serve for our lunch from farm to table at her ranch family, El Barranco, located 30 miles to the north from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
Rita Garcia prepares the prickly pear cactus pad (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
It is known as one of the most ancient ingredients of Mexico Nopales are now returning to the scene. This nutritious food is all over the place in Mexican homes, vaqueros (taco vendors), restaurants, and cooking classes, to now being incorporated into America’s Southwestern food scene.
“The nopal cactus comes from a Nahuatl word ‘nohpalli’ dating back to pre-Columbian times,” explained Danny Perez, our guide from Dharma Expeditions, an outfitter in Los Cabos, which connects tourists and their ranchero(rancher) community to take an authentic cooking class. “This cactus is deeply woven into our culture and national identity,” Danny explained during our tour of Garcia’s farm. “It is found in our national flags, on art as well as in mythology that is based on the foundation of Tenochtitlan which was an ancient Aztec capital and the contemporary Mexico City. It’s very symbolic and significant to Mexican inhabitants.”
When we passed the goats, native desert scrubs, and a tiny family garden, It was simple to understand why the cactus is an integral part of Mexican life. It is everywhere, quickly reproduces, and flourishes in extreme climates such as Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. In a region that receives only a tiny amount of rain, Cacti survive and thrive – exactly like Garcia and her ancestors, who have been living and working on the deserted, inhospitable terrain for thousands of years.
As Garcia demonstrated to us how to select the perfect mature nopal pad – fresh, vibrant, and almost green. We were told that nopals are tender and delicious in the spring but are available year-round.
With the flavor of a mildly tangy green bean, and the ability to be included in nearly every meal, nopales were a diet staple for many centuries. They are highly nutritious and nutritious, as well as versatile. They are packed with minerals, vitamins, and dietary fiber; a nopal pad can fill a hungry stomach for a long time, Garcia explained. They are the reason they are an essential part of almost every Mexican household.
“You can do everything with this cactus,” said Garcia as she helped us cook our food. “You can boil it, grill it, eat it raw as a juice or add it to a stew, salsas or eggs.”
“It is a Mexican ‘superfood’,” her daughter Joycelyn laughed.
Rita Garcia and her daughter Jocelyn host guests at El Barranco, their ranch located in Baja, Mexico (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
In addition to pads, the nopales produce a small, oval-shaped fruit called Tuna. Tuna has a sweet flavor that’s like watermelon. It is utilized in cocktails, juices, and jellies.
When we gathered the onions, tomatoes, garlic, and coriander to make the salad- all fresh from the field, We had a short lesson on cutting nopales with Jocelyn. “Hold them steady while you slice, first lengthwise and then across the width,” she advised. They are notoriously gooey, sticky since they are stuffed with mucilage. It is a tough, sticky substance that acts as the storage of the fibers in the cactus.
We cooked our prized nopales on a traditional charcoal grill and then patiently waited. After 10 minutes, the nopales were perfectly cooked, drained, and cooled. The salad was prepared while Perez played guitar.
Then it was time to make one taco. I grabbed a freshly prepared blue corn tortilla and filled it with ensalada de nopales, salsa roja, salsa verde, and fresh goat cheese made on the farm that day.