Nopal means cactus in Spanish and Nopales is the term for "cactus stem." The term nopalitos refers to the pads once they are cut up and prepared for eating. Nopals are native to Mexico and were grown and eaten as a vegetable in Central Mexico before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish explorers took the plant back to Spain and nopal spread throughout North Africa with the Moors. It is currently grown throughout Mexico, parts of the United States and the Mediterranean.
Commercially two sizes of nopales pads are harvested: small (less than 10 centimeters long) and medium (less than 20 centimeters long). The young and tender leaf pads, which have the fewest spines, are harvested in early spring. Good quality nopals are full of water, firm and brilliant green in color. The thorns and "eyes" are removed with a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife. Then the pads are washed, peeled and sliced into shoestring strips or diced.
Nopalitos can be eaten raw, grilled, breaded and fried, pickled, or boiled in salted water, then drained and added to dishes. Cooked nopalitos are added to pork, shellfish, eggs, soups, salads or tortilla fillings. The nopal has also been used as a medicinal plant and is a hallmark vegetable in the Latin American diet.