Ensalada de nopales (or cactus salad) is a quick, easy, and vegan-friendly dish that's extremely popular in Mexico. Serve it as a light lunch, a side dish, a taco garnish, and more. Don't let the cactus paddles intimidate you out of making this delicious recipe!
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This cactus salad is light, fresh, tasty, and simple — four words we love to hear when it comes to food. Once you know how to clean and prepare cactus paddles (nopales), you'll be laughing straight to the dinner table!
What is ensalada de nopales?
While it may seem crazy, cactus is a widely consumed plant! Yes, ensalada de nopales (or prickly pear cactus salad) is a tasty side dish served all over Mexico.
It's incredible stuffed inside tacos or served on tlacoyos if you're looking for a light vegan or vegetarian snack.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's clarify some terminology...
Nopal cactus refers to the whole plant, nopales is the name for the paddles, and tuna is the Spanish term for the prickly pear fruit that grows on this cactus species.
To make ensalada de nopales, you first need to clean the nopales and dice them into nopalitos (little nopales). Cook or soak them to remove the infamous slime (babas) that oozes out — not unlike okra.
Throw in diced vegetables, a little lime, and a garnish of cilantro and vegan queso fresco. Not too intimidating, right?
Is ensalada de nopales vegan?
A typical recipe for ensalada de nopales is definitely vegan-friendly. However, sometimes cheese is added in, making these versions vegetarian.
In this recipe, we included a vegan queso fresco to emulate creamy and tangy flavors without the need for dairy.
History of nopales
Nopales have been cultivated in Mexico for hundreds of years. The Aztecs utilized them for consumption, during rituals, and in medicine.
Nopal translates to "fruit of the earth" in the Nahuatl language, and it was used to cure fevers, treat diarrhea, and fight infections.
Talk about a superfood!
Cactus is an incredibly important part of Mesoamerican history, shaping many of the meals consumed in modern-day Mexico (it's even included in the Mexican coat of arms).
Nopales are still incorporated into all sorts of Mexican dishes like nopales con huevos, jugo verde, salsas, and tacos.
It's incredible to think of the rich history behind foods (like nopales) that are still consumed to this day.
Cactus salad is best served immediately on its own or served alongside tasty tacos like:
As mentioned above, this ensalada de nopales recipe is both vegan and gluten-free!
🍲 Key ingredients
For a complete ingredient list and step-by-step guide, scroll down to our recipe card.
Taste: nopales have a crisp, citrusy flavor with a texture similar to okra. Although some initial effort is required to remove the prickly spines and slime, the end result is definitely worth it.
Health: nopales have so many health benefits, we could write an entire post on them! They're extremely high in antioxidants, carry antiviral properties (helpful against things like HIV, herpes, or RSV), and may even reduce your bad cholesterol (LDL). That's just scratching the surface!
Taste: with a bright flavor and little juice, Roma tomatoes are ideal for salads because they retain their shape and add acidic, tangy, and slightly sweet notes.
Health: just 1 medium-sized tomato contains over 25% of your daily vitamin C needs. Not only that, your heart will thank you for consuming tomatoes thanks to how much potassium is packed into each one!
Taste: adding a green, garden vegetable flavor, green chiles turn up the heat a little (or a lot) depending on which variety you choose. We like spice, so we used serranos in our ensalada de nopales.
Health: green chiles are high in vitamin A and C, which are both helpful in fending off disease. In addition to that, spicy peppers may actually help with weight loss due to their metabolism-boosting effects.
Taste: creamy, tangy, and crumbly, vegan queso fresco is the perfect addition to round out your ensalada de nopales. It creates a more filling and hearty salad, and it's just too delicious to leave out!
Health: switching to a vegan diet isn't just for the animals. Cutting out meat and dairy limits your intake of saturated fat and replaces it with unsaturated fats found in nuts (like the ones in our queso fresco). Over time, this will have a tremendous effect on your heart health.
If you have questions about this ensalada de nopales recipe, don't forget to check out our FAQ section at the bottom of this post.
Step 1: using a towel or just holding it carefully, prepare the nopales by cutting around both edges to remove the outer thorns. For the rest, run the edge of your knife in a horizontal fashion all over the paddle until the thorns are gone.
Step 2: turn it over and repeat the same process on the second side. Chop the de-spined nopales into small rectangles, rinse them in a colander, then place them in a large pot with water and salt.
Step 3: bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the nopales are tender and slightly darker green in color. In the meantime, prep the tomatoes, onion, serrano, cilantro, avocado, and queso fresco.
Step 4: after they’ve cooked, transfer the nopalitos back to a strainer. Rinse under cold water while vigorously mixing to remove the slime. Add the rinsed nopalitos to a mixing bowl, then stir in the tomatoes, onions, and serrano.
Step 5: in a separate bowl, mix the lime juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, and Mexican oregano. Stir together, then drizzle the dressing over the nopales salad. Serve your cactus salad with cilantro, queso fresco, and avocado on top. Happy eating!
We love making extra ensalada de nopales for a quick and easy side dish to serve alongside our meals. Follow these storage tips to make sure your salad stays fresh.
Keep your cactus salad in the fridge for up to 2-3 days after making it. If you can, use airtight glass containers so the flavors stay locked in.
💭 Tips & variations
We'd like to share some tips and variations we learned while experimenting with this ensalada de nopales recipe:
- Swap in other vegetables. Try including some of your other favorite vegetables to mix this salad up. Some ideas include bell peppers, different chiles, or carrots.
- Be careful. When handling the cactus paddles, wear gloves, use a towel, or just hold the very tip where there are less spines!
- Use a sharp knife. When working with nopales, make sure your knife is sharp!
- Keep it fresh. Some people prefer the flavors of fresh cactus in their salad. Try yours both ways to see which way you like best.
🍴 Tasting notes
Ensalada de nopales is one of our all-time favorite side dishes. It's:
If you try this cactus salad recipe, please rate it and leave us a comment below! Want to stay up-to-date with new recipes? Subscribe to our newsletter or connect with Broke Bank Vegan on social media. Happy eating!
Ensalada de Nopales
- Knife & cutting board
- Large pot
- Mixing bowls
- 3 large nopales, spines removed ($0.66)
- 2 large Roma tomatoes, diced ($0.32)
- ½ small white onion, diced ($0.24)
- 1 serrano, minced ($0.02)
- 2 tablespoons lime juice ($0.12)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil ($0.11)
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano ($0.03)
- Salt & pepper to taste ($0.02)
- ½ avocado, diced
- 3-4 tablespoons cilantro, minced
- ½ cup vegan queso fresco
- Clean the nopales by cutting around both edges to remove the outer thorns. For the rest, run the edge of your knife in a horizontal fashion all over the paddle until the thorns are gone. Flip and repeat on the second side.
- Chop the de-spined nopales into small rectangles, rinse them in a colander, then place them in a large pot with water and a large pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the nopales are tender and slightly darker green in color.
- In the meantime, prep the tomatoes, onion, serrano, cilantro, avocado, and queso fresco.
- After they’ve cooked, transfer the nopalitos back to a strainer. Rinse under cold water while vigorously mixing to remove the slime. Add the rinsed nopalitos to a mixing bowl, then stir in the tomatoes, onions, and serrano.
- In a separate bowl, mix the lime juice, olive oil, Mexican oregano, salt, and pepper. Mix together, then combine the dressing with the nopales salad.
- Serve your cactus salad with cilantro, queso fresco, and avocado on top. Happy eating!
- Some sources swear by boiling the nopalitos with a tomatillo husk or 2 in the water. We haven’t personally tried this, but you can give it a try to get rid of more slime.
- Optional ingredients are not reflected in the price or calories of our recipes.
- We calculate nutritional information for our recipes with Cronometer.
- Recipe cost calculations are based on ingredients local to us and may vary from recipe-to-recipe.
- All prices are in USD.
♻️ Similar recipes
For more tasty side dishes and garnishes, check out our:
- Chiles toreados for spicy chiles blackened in the pan and served with onions, garlic, and soy sauce.
- Pickled red onions for quick and easy onions that have a tangy finish. Add them to salad, tacos, and more.
- Pickled jalapeños if you love all things spicy, tangy, and a little sweet.
- Refried beans for a rich, creamy, and delicious side dish, taco topping, or burrito filling.
Nopales have a light, tart, and citrusy flavor. They are similar in texture to green beans and okra mixed together.
Yes! Nopales are often consumed raw when mixed in recipes like jugo verde. Even this recipe can be made with raw cactus. It's all personal preference.
If you plan to eat ensalada de nopales raw, dice the paddles, toss them in a hefty amount of sea salt, and let them rest for about 10-20 minutes. Run the nopalitos under cool water while vigorously scrubbing them to remove the slime.