Prickly pear cacti

It marked the site where the Aztecs settled (now the City of Mexico), and it was the source of 'Spanish red'. The nopal (or prickly-pear-tree) is a plant that punches above it's weight in contributing to Mexico's culture.


Light colored cochineal beetles release a bright red liquid when crushed. The ancient Maya and Aztecs used it to dye cotton and other fibers, and it is still used in weaving crafts today. The town of Oaxaca is famous for this.

Cochineal red was second only to silver as an export from Mexico during the colonial period. It was hugely popular in Europe and the United Kingdom as a color in clothing. Heard of the Red-coats? The Spanish made a killing out of selling red to the British.

Cochineal lost favor when new red dyes came along, but has since found it's place in cosmetics and as a food-colorant (E120) thanks to it being non-toxic (unlike so many reds, as a painter I'm aware that certain reds may harm your child-bearing potential - it certainly is the color of danger).

I suggest reading Victoria Finlay's book 'Color' to learn the full history of this pigment. The book is a sensory exploration of the history of different colors from all corners of the world.

In cooking

It may sound strange, but this cactus is very commonly eaten in Mexico. You can buy it in most mercados by the leaf. Young leaves about the size of your hand are the best for eating. To prepare it for eating you must first (and obviously) remove the thorns. Use a peeler to smooth off any remaining bumps then chop the flesh into small cubes. Diced nopal is used in salsas, and in salads. It combines well with the flavors of chili and cilantro (corianda).


Nutritious benefits

Some use prickly-pear as an appetite suppressant. It's easily juiced and so can form a liquid diet for losing weight.

The chromium helps regulate your blood sugar, which is perfect for those with a sweet-tooth like me!

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