The first time I ran into the pads of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) in a supermarket, I received a nasty shock. Out of curiosity, I handled them and found that the spines were still in them. My first impulse was to think, “Now why would anyone eat this stuff?”
But curiosity won out in the end. I think I first saw nopalitos on the menu at Paco’s Tacos in Culver City and decided to order them. First of all, it looked very different from the fresh cactus pads:
For one thing, the texture was all different, kind of like pickled okra—and the spines were all gone. Gingerly, I ate some with a fresh corn tortilla and loved the flavor.
Later, when my Type 2 Diabetes required some changes to my diet, I was delighted to find that nopalitos retard the absorption of sugars by the digestive system and thus have a low glycemic index. In Southern Calfornia, one could buy bottled nopalitos in virtually any supermarket and eat them as a salad, in the form of tacos, or cooked with scrambled eggs and chiles.
I don’t know whether it’s possible to find nopalitos outside of the American Southwest, but I think it’s worth making an effort. They’re delicious!