Nopales al Vapor Estilo Otumba

Last night I tested a recipe for steamed cactus and I must say it was damn tasty. The flavor of the nopales was bold and the texture a perfect “al dente.” No hint of slime. 

The recipe, “Nopales al Vapor Estilo Otumba,” comes from Diana Kennedy’s 1978 book, Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico. 

Kennedy, born in England, has lived in Mexico since 1957 and is considered by many to be the “Julia Child” of  Mexican cuisine. She has even received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government in recognition of her cultural work in honoring Mexican cuisine. Of course, Kennedy is not the only Anglo person who has positioned themselves as an expert in this field: In the US, Rick Bayless is arguably the best known chef of Mexican cuisine. 

On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for both Kennedy and Bayless and their broad knowledge of the range and complexity of Mexican cuisine. In some ways, they have used their privilege to study and promote Mexican cuisine, eating and gathering recipes from all corners of Mexico. In an ironic twist, Kennedy and Bayless become a resource to US Chicanos/as/oas as we try to decolonize our diets by reclaiming the food of our ancestors. Many of us did not receive these lesson from our parents or grandparents; so we are forced to investigate on our own and learn by combing through cookbooks and websites, in addition to talking to friends and elders in our communities. Such cookbooks are valuable sources of knowledge. 

However, I can’t help but feel some sense of injustice in the fact that Bayless and Kennedy are the ones to have achieved such expertise (not to mention fame and fortune) when so many Chicanos/as/oas have been deprived of this knowledge. It is important to acknowledge that many of Bayless’s and Kennedy’s recipes come directly from home cooks across Mexico. These women and men freely shared their cultural knowledge. Sometimes these cooks are acknowledged by name and other times they are nameless. Either way, their life circumstances become the “colorful story” that lends authenticity to the Anglo-penned cookbook. 

That said, giving acknowledgement of recipes is a tricky business. Most recipes are passed from one cook to the next, with each cook giving a slight twist. A 100% new recipe or technique is rare. In Mexican cuisine, many recipes date back thousands of years. How does anyone (including us) properly acknowledge their provenance? It’s tricky. 

In the case of this Nopales al Vapor recipe, Kennedy writes that she learned of this method of cooking nopales from an unnamed bus driver in Otumba, a village near the pyramids of Teotihuacán. Apparently this driver was also a cook who enjoyed making the noon meal for his fellow bus drivers in the bus garage where they gathered to eat. We never learn his name. 

Nopales al Vapor Estilo Otumba: A Diana Kennedy  Bus Driver’s Recipe

2 tablespoons oil 
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 pound prepared nopales, cut into small chunks
1/4 white onion, thinly sliced
2 jalapeños, diced
2 large sprigs epazote (I didn’t have so I used papaloquelite. YUM.)
1 teaspoon salt

Heat the oil in a heavy pan, then lower the flame and and saute the garlic, without browning, for a few seconds. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover the pan and cook over a low flame, stirring the mixture form time to time, until the nopales are almost tender: they should be very “juicy” [read: "babosos"] at this stage. 

Remove the lid from the pan and continue cooking over a slightly higher flame until all the sticky liquid from the nopales has dried up—about 20 minutes, depending on how tender the nopales are. The babas/slime totally evaporates leaving perfect nopalitos!

Kennedy suggests your serve these nopales in a hot corn tortilla with some queso fresco. I’m sure that would be delicious. You could also mix these nopales with scrambled eggs or chill them to use them in a salad. I added mine to freshly cooked frijoles (see below) and then served them with fresh corn tortillas, avocado slices, and some queso fresco. They got rave reviews. 

The tangy taste of the nopales was much bolder in this steaming method than when the nopales are boiled. In my rendition, the tang of the nopal paired especially nicely with the creaminess of the pinto beans.  I think the method of twice boiling nopales is great for beginners who are really not so sure about the taste and texture of nopales.  But for you nopales lovers out there, try the bus driver’s method!  It won’t disappoint.