Why El Nopal is an Iconic Mexican Symbol

If you’re familiar with the national emblem of Mexico, you’ll recognize the victorious eagle holding a snake in its beak from Aztec legend. But do you know about the plant he stands on? 

The nopal or cactus plant is an iconic symbol in Mexican history, government, and folklore. Nopales, the wide, flat “paddles” of a prickly pear cactus plant, are also hugely important in Mexican cuisine! 

Today, we’re exploring what makes el nopal such an integral symbol of what it means to be Mexican. 

Prickly Pear: A Sign From the Gods 

The word “nopal” comes from the Nahuatl word “nochtli,” which means “prickly pear.” The prickly pear cactus plays an enormous role in Mexican legend.

According to legend, the Aztecs fled a tyrannical king under instructions from the god Huitzilopochtli to find a new home in the Valley of Mexico. Cunning Huitzilopochtli told them they would know the spot when an eagle with a snake clutched in its beak landed on a nopal cactus. 

Sure enough, the Aztec explorers watched an eagle swoop down to enjoy his meal upon a prickly pear cactus on a tiny island in the middle of a lake. In celebration, the Aztecs founded their new capital city and named it Tenochtitlan, which means “the land of the nopal cactus,” or “the place where a cactus grows from a stone.” 

The ancient city of Tenochtitlan, filled with medical and technological wonders for its time, would eventually become the historic center of Mexico City as we know it today. 

El Nopal as Ancient Aztec Medicine

The prickly pear cactus plant was a crucial part of life for ancient Mexicans. Nopales offered sustenance, hope, and healing. Because every part of the prickly pear cactus is edible—the stems, flowers, fruit, and paddles are all used in Mexican cuisine—ancient Mexicans called el nopal “la planta de vida” or “the plant of life.” 

The prickly pear earned this name because of its multi-use properties. In ancient times, Aztecs used the juice of el nopal to treat burns and skin conditions. It was ground or juiced up in poultices and healing treatments. 

When eaten, nopales contain high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. A regular diet that includes prickly pear is said to lower blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, and fight off viruses. It’s basically a healthy superfood that’s existed and been celebrated for centuries! 

Nopales in Ancient and Modern Mexican Cuisine 

For people who celebrate traditional Mexican cuisine, the nopal is more than a tasty snack—it’s steeped in the rich history of Mexican food. 

For centuries, Mexicans have served prickly pear cactus grilled, seared in a skillet, chopped up to fill out salads, and as a fresh, robust ingredient in salsa verde. Today, you’ll find nopales sold at grocery stores and open-air markets, available fresh, pre-cooked, or canned. You can get nopales with the spines already removed, but many Mexican families enjoy the process of cutting away el nopal’s spines as a traditional part of cooking. 

One of the most popular ways to eat nopales is to grill them alongside a hearty protein like steak or carne asada. However, if you dig into authentic Mexican menus, you’ll discover nopales served in a delicious variety of ways. 

Prickly Pear is More Than a Plant — It’s Family!

With so much historical, cultural, and culinary significance, the prickly pear cactus is understandably a massive part of Mexican culture. In fact, it’s so important to modern Mexico that it has a place of honor on the Mexican flag: as part of the seal of Mexico, featuring that proud eagle, his dinner, and el nopal that founded a city of progress. 

Did this article make you hungry? Us, too! Head over to the MexiCrate dulceria to pick out your favorite Mexican candies. Or, treat yourself to one of our variety boxes for a trip through Mexican candy culture! 

Now if you need us, we’ll be throwing nopales on the grill til we’re too full to say “prickly pear”! 

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