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Such various nopal...

Such various nopal...

Often, when Mexico is mentioned, the imagination of Europeans produces a picture of half-scorched desert with a variety of cactuses standing alone and weary wandering mule, carrying a sleepy because of a heat man with a sombrero... We won’t tell you now that there is only a small part of Mexico in this picture - let's talk about one of its main actors, a nopal cactus!

Mexicans love this plant and respect it so much that even put it on their coat of arms and flag. The prickly pear, or as it is called here, nopal, is one of the national symbols of Mexico. According to an Aztec legend, the god Huitzilopochtli had predicted the Aztecs, which were searching a land to live, that they had to find a stony ground and the eagle sitting at the top of nopal cactus and devouring a snake. Finding this eagle, the Aztecs erected the first temple in honor of their patron Huitzilopochtli on the site, and their capital gradually increased around it.

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According to a Mexican legend, the first nopal was born of the heart of Copil, a son of Malinalxochitl goddess, a patroness of snakes, scorpions and insects of the desert, and sister of Huitzilopochtli. He was killed, trying to take revenge on his uncle for the offense to his mother, by order of Huitzilopochtli. Copil’s heart was torn out and buried among the rocks, and the next day a nopal rose of it – with the thorns of brave warrior and the flowers of son who defended his mother.

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To date, nopal is one of the most common plants, it can be seen not only in natural environment growing in semi-arid zones of the country (by the way, up to two dozen species of Opuntia, including 8 endemics, can be found in Mexico). In the cities, this cactus is used for landscaping, and in the villages the large ones, planted in a row, often serve as a fence. It was observed that nopal enriches even the most barrent soil, that’s why it is also used for this purpose. However, some other applications in this plant exist.

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Nopal is one of the usual meals of traditional Mexican menu. Its young and medium-sized leaves, cleaned of thorns (they are cut with a sharp knife), can be grilled without precooking. The leaves of a bigger size are firstly boiled to get rid of mucus, and then can be used such as a separate dish, as one of the ingredients of salads. One of the most popular salads of nopal includes its leaves, sliced as a straw, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and soft cheese, and it is seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. A pickled nopal as good too, its taste is vaguely reminiscent pickles liked by many.

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A sweet nopal fruit called "tuna" in Mexico is very popular too.

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Its pulp is very juicy and flavorful, but you should be careful with a fairly large and hard seeds. Because of these seeds, Mexicans use tunas for the preparation of fruit water: the fruits are mashed; the pulp is filtered and mixed with water. Such a refreshing drink! The fruits of one of the nopal species, xoconostle, are more acidic, so they are used for making a delicious dessert: a fruit is peeled, carefully opened; a sour pulp is taken out and a coat is stuffed with nuts and raisins. Then the prepared fruits are put in sweet syrup.

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Nopal is actively used for medical purposes. The plant is one of the best sources of calcium, so it has benefits for bones, teeth, hair and nails. It can and should be consumed in case of dewatering as nopal pulp accumulates a huge amount of water. Due to the same pulp, rich of various fibers, nopal cactus is considered as a good tool to lose weight. One of its most valuable properties on the medical viewpoint is that its regular consumption lowers a blood sugar, and it helps in diabetes controlling. Nopal also has the properties of natural antibiotic, an anticancer agent; the substances it has compete with cholesterol in blood, improve circulation, support the immune and nervous system, etc.

As one of the oldest plants in Mexico, nopal certainly has not revealed all of its secrets neither to the inhabitants of this country nor to the world. But you can be sure that it will never lose the love and respect of Mexicans.

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