Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 5: The Chayote

Chayotes are native to Mexico and are a member of the squash family--albeit the strangest member of that family!  It doesn't look like a squash, it doesn't grow like a squash, it doesn't taste like a squash and, generally in native kitchens, it isn't prepared much like squash.  Even though it is most closely related to squash, it really looks, and sometimes, smells a lot more like the less closely related cucumber--some. like the prickly variety, even have melon tones when cut into.

It is known by a number of names in various places, curiously, most of them are in native food traditions stemming directly from some of the original Native American ways to prepare this--the traditions of preparation here are basically unbroken.  I have already written about the linguist origins of the Nahautl word for this, see that here.  In other parts of the New World, it is known as the Christophene--parts of the Caribbean, Mirilton in Cajun country, Xuxu (pronounced "shoo-shoo")--Brazil, Coo-Coo--Jamaica, güisquil (a Mayan word)--Guatemala & El Salvador, & Vegetable Pear--most English speaking areas in the US.  Elsewhere it is known as Choko--Australia & New Zealand, Citrayote in parts of South American and sayote in the Philipinnes.  These last two dervice directly from the original Nahuatl "Chayothli."  

What is curious about these squash is the single center seed.  Most squash and pumpkins have loads of seeds!  People carving pumpkins for Halloween around this time of year know this well.  This single seed in the center of the Chayote makes it look a bit like a squash version of an avocado.  And it has some serious culinary history of it's own.  Traditionally, when the squash is cooked (it can be eaten raw), the single seed is exclusively the treat of the cook!  

Like all squash in Mexico, the young shoots are edible and used in a variety of ways, traditionally in soups.  Unlike any other type of squash, the vines provided a nearly year round supply of shoots, which accounts for there wide commercial use in Mexico's food stands and restaurants.  The shoots are also a popular food amongst indigenous Taiwanese Austronesian tribes AKA Formosans.

Chayote Shoots harvested and ready to use.

These are much more hardy vines, and in places that are not prone to serious frost, they are treated like perennials.  When grown like this, the roots may be harvested and eaten as well--it looks a lot like a Yuca/Cassava/Manioc root.  Unlike Yuca, it needs no processing and can be cooked out right--they can be roasted or fried.

Chayote Roots aka Ichintal

They can be prepared in some many different ways.  In addition to the salad recipe in the blog link and the shoot and root suggestions above, they are often sauteed for a side dish, pickled--either cooked or raw, stuffed and even made into desserts!  In Asia, it is a popular stir fry ingredient in some places.  All parts of the plant are also used as live stock food.

Chayote Flower

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