Mexico Stories

Jan McGirk on the secrets of cactus spines and spiced brains
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Spinelessness: for me it's become a sought-after quality, at least as long as I'm picking through produce to find ingredients for a fresh cactus salad.

Spinelessness. For me it's become a sought-after quality, at least as long as I'm picking through produce to find ingredients for a fresh cactus salad. Baskets of green ovals, the pads of young nopal cacti plants, are heaped high in Mexico City vegetable markets this month. And though stout housewives elbow past me, I methodically search for the very smoothest ones to buy.

A humble knee-high cactus, the nopal grows on scrub land where little else flourishes. Its tangy prickly pears are delicious, rather like crunchy green beans enhanced with MSG, but it must have taken a very hungry soul to get through the spines and consume the prickly plant for the first time.

You don't eat nopal cactus raw. First you chop it up and boil it, and wait for the slime to emerge. The thick leaves secrete a scummy mystery juice which I don't want in my mouth. Adela Fernandez, a culinary whiz whose cinematographer father concocted Mexican westerns, taught me a trick with a couple of copper coins. A thorough scrub with lemon juice and baking soda shines them up, then you heat them on the grill until they glow red, then drop them into the water to raise the temperature. Suddenly the cactus cooks more quickly, and you can drain off the slippery stuff. Toss in tomatoes and coriander, and it's lunch.

Maria next door says there's no need for such fuss. She buys slimeless, pre-cooked nopal at the supermercado.

 

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Nopalito, little prickly cactus, is an apt nickname for Tacho, the grumpy watchman at the corner house. What astonishes me is that he answers to it. Mexicans have a knack for choosing pet names, and political correctness doesn't come into it.

"Gordo" (Fatty), "Flaca" (Slim) and "Negrito" (Blackie) are just the beginning. A pop singer will dedicate a song to, say, "Chaparrita", and three quarters of the audience will swoon, because so many women answer to Shorty as an endearment.

"Chata" (Pug nose), "Pecosa" (Freckle face), "Orejon" (Big Ears), "Fede" (Ugly), "Bruja" (Witch), and "Enano" (Dwarf) all are disarmingly common. It's like being back in the schoolyard again.

I got off easily with "La Gringa", which roughly translates as the Yank. One rather dim acquaintance is called "Quesadilla", and I thought it was because he wolfed down so many of these snacks. "Not exactly," explained Fernando, his boyhood friend. "You need just the slightest smear of spiced brains spread on a tortilla before it's rolled up into a quesadilla. That's the amount of brains poor Q has."

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