Indigenous Culture

The Gifts from the Beloved Cacti

Did you know that in the U.S., August is National Cactus, Celery, and Fennel Month?  Very exciting, I know.  Let us take this opportunity to celebrate the many gifts bestowed upon us by the cacti of Oaxaca.

On my very first weekend in Oaxaca, I was wandering by Santo Domingo (the church in the center of historic downtown Oaxaca) and a perfect stranger gave me a small bamboo cup filled with the most divine mezcal.  Now normally, I wouldn’t accept a mystery liquid in a piece of bamboo from a stranger, but an Oaxacan friend assured me that it was the thing to do.  There was a wedding going on, which was responsible for the lively parade in the streets and the distribution of mezcal to random passersby… one more reason why Oaxaca is such a special place.


I would be remiss if I didn’t first start by sharing a bit about mezcal, considering in Oaxaca, it’s everywhere!  Mezcal is an alcohol drink made by fermenting the heart, also know as the piña, of the maguey plant.  It tastes a bit like tequila but with a tart and smoky flavor. Oaxaca happens to be the world’s largest producer of mezcal, so if you’ve joined us on a tour, you’ve probably seen mezcal production centers on the drive out to the towns.

Now, personally, I’m a bit cautious when it comes to mezcal. You never know if its going to be silky smokiness that warms your throat, or rather, a sharp tang that necessitates a severe wince and big gulp in order to swallow.  Regardless, mezcal holds a special place in my heart due to a very memorable afternoon.

It is the perfect pet

As I’ve just been informed by a fellow En Vía volunteer, a cactus is the perfect household pet.  Despite the fact that it’s not the cuddliest of companions, it has enough aesthetic complexity that we can pretend it has personality.  It needs very little from you, and yet, you get to enjoy all that is has to offer as fixture in your kitchen window.  And unlike a dog, you will never feel any resentment because it peed on your favorite rug.



The nopal plant covered in cochineal insects.

If you find yourself in the workspace of a weaver in Teotitlán del Valle, you may encounter some materials that resemble little more than red-tinged pebbles.  Don’t be fooled – these in fact are the magical cochineal, insects that live on th nopal cactus (referred to as the prickly pear cactus in other parts of the world) and produce vibrant shades of red dyes when mixed with water and other materials. If you’re interested in learning more about this little bit of magic, Helen, a fellow volunteer, has written a really informative blog post about cochineal.

Food, Food, Food

Ensalada de Nopales

Nopal, a vegetable made from the young segments of the prickly pear cactus, are found in many Oaxacan dishes.  Native to Mexico, some 10 000 farmers cultivate nopal, producing close to $150 million worth of nopal each year.[1]


The nopal fruit.

They can be flavored with green chilies and vinegar, then rolled up in tortillas.  Or, my favorite, you can make them into a salad with tomatoes, onions, and mustard vinaigrette.  It’s quite refreshing.


Tuna nieves (i.e. tuna sorbet)

For those of you experience a bit of a gag reaction with the thought of processed fish mixed into ice cream, rest assured, it’s not that type of tuna.  Instead, the tuna used in nieves (sorbet sold all over Oaxaca) is actually the fruit of the Nopal cactus.  It is really rather tasty – definitely worth trying if you have the opportunity!


Marina, one of the women in our program, with tuna fruit.

As you can see, the cactus really is a generous plant.  We have much to thank it for and with that, I’m heading off to find my afternoon Tuna nieve.

By Gabrielle Newell

Photos by Kim Groves

[1] Thorny Mexican food staple gains fame as folk cure by Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters (Mon Apr 16, 2007 10:34 AM ET)

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