Nopales (Grilled Cactus Paddles)

With spring upon us, I’ve been looking to expand my grilling options. The idea of cooking and eating a cactus might sound intimidating, but the reality is much simpler than you’d think. All you have to do is scrape off their thorns, and grill them – it’s that easy.

Nopales are the paddles of oputina (prickly pear) cactus, commonly found in Mexico. They are a common vegetable in Mexico, and taste a little like green beans, but slightly more acidic. They are a great addition to grilled meat dishes, or tasty just on their own. They are also often sliced/diced and served with eggs or in salads.

Serves four

6-8 nopales
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper

Using a sharp knife, hold the nopales by its stem and scrape off its thorns. Then hold it on the other side and scrape down its stem until you get to the soft part. Rinse and pat dry.

Brush the oil onto the nopales, and sprinkle on the salt and pepper. Grill on direct, medium heat, and flip once it is slightly charred, about two minutes. Grill for another two minutes – you’ll know they’re ready when they are soft and dark green. Slice and serve.

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29 thoughts on “Nopales (Grilled Cactus Paddles)

    1. It’s quite yummy. It is slightly sour (think a lemon squeeze but no lemon), and it’s texture can get a bit “slimy” like okra, in the good way (so it’s a great helper in thickening soups without flour or cream). It’s wonderful. I grill mine with a McCormick Burrito Seasonings (and an extra dash of Cumin).

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  1. Even before we started on Paleo, nopales were part of our diet. Grilled them, chop them, add chopped onion, cilantro, a pinch of salt and few drops of lime juice and you have a tasty nopales salad!


  2. We have prickly pear here in Australia (not sure if it is the same one..) but I know that maltese farmers used it as a wind breaker for there crops. So, they start to fruit, my nuna and nunu (Grandma and Granddad) always have the fruit frozen in the freezer, and we eat them like Iceblocks! I would have never thought to eat the paddles..


  3. Another way to get rid of the thorns on the pads and prickly pear fruit is to wave it over a flame, like on a gas stove. Oddly, nopales are also called “tunas” but have nothing to do with fish. I live in Tucson and prickly pear cactus are a common site in the wild and in gardens. This time of year they have yellow, orange, and pink flowers – gorgeous!


    1. “Tunas” are actually the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. You take off the outside peel and eat the sweet flesh inside, preferrably chilled (careful with the seeds..). Nopales refers to the pads of the same plants.

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  4. Nopales are delicious when properly prepared, and highly nutritious. Just for the record, “nopales” is plural. One paddle is a nopal. One nopal, two nopales. Also, the “tuna” someone mentioned refers to the fat little globe-shaped fruit that appears after the beautiful flowers fade. That little fruit is where the common name “prickly pear” came from. The pears, or tunas, are quite tasty, and can be purchased in some ethnic grocery stores, just as you can buy nopales – usually already cleaned and dethorned for you.


    1. Tunas are delicious fruit. Just clean them carefully, put them in the fridge for a quick ‘cool’ time and they are ready to eat!


  5. <3 you for writing a post about the glorious nopal! Nopales are very common in most Mexican/Mexican American households you can add them to almost anything. I <3 them with eggs, you can soak them in lemon/lime and salt and add them to a salsa, add to stews, meats whatever your heart desires. If you don't want to clean them most latino markets, at least here on the West Coast, sell pre-cut cleaned nopales in the refrigerated vegetable section.


  6. I heard a story on NPR tonight and thus the reason I found this on the internet. The expert advised that cactus paddles are chock full of anti-oxidants, loaded with vitamin C, are a good source of fiber and that since I live in Texas and have two ranches, I’M GONNA BE FILTHY RICH :) The NPR piece also stated that paddle cactus is very good for people having issues with blood sugar problems.


  7. Grill them over charcoal. I have done it without using olive oil or anything else. I didn’t scrape them or anything because the hairs were burned off during cooking.. They were good. Possibly a little salt might have made them better. I wonder what drizzling them with a little bit of lemon juice or lime juice might do after they were cooked. Really they were quite good just as I prepared them.


  8. Both my parents are from Mexico. We ate these a lot when growing up. My mom had a few recipes.

    When ready to harvest, my mom would dethrone them dice them and boil them with a few cloves of garlic and a piece of onion with a tiny bit of salt. Cooked them for about 20 min. She would either drain them and freeze or store in its broth in the fridge for 1 week. When ready to cook in a dish she would use the ones in the broth and drain or thaw the frozen ones.

    1. for breakfast – heat olive oil, garlic, onion until translucent, then add diced tomato, and cooked drained nopales. Once heated she would add eggs. We would gobble them up with homemade flour or corn tortillas. Very economical vegetarian meal. AMAZING!

    2. for salad – she would get the boiled nopales, drain them and chopped, onion, tomato, serrano peppers, panela cheese, chopped cilantro, salt, pepper and a squirt of lemon or lime and we had a salad ready to be served as a side dish. So good. Great for a picnic since no refrigeration is needed.

    3. Main Dish – Chile con carne. My mom would pan fry chopped steak. Added a homemade red salsa and added the boiled nopales to it. Served it along with beans or rice and you have an amazing meal. When in a rush and I have no time to make my own red salsa I use canned enchilada sauce and it’s still great. My mom doesn’t know or else she’ll tell me it’s not the way she taught me. LOL!

    In Latino, Catholic homes cactus is very common.

    I have so many other ways to cook them. Great grilled when making carne asada.


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