Real Food Encyclopedia | Chayote
Though the shape of a chayote has been likened to a fist, its flavor doesn’t exactly pack a punch. Rather, the chayote has a mild taste that balances between apple and cucumber with a jicama-like fresh crispiness, making it a versatile addition to the dinner plate.
While veg-like in practice and in flavor, the chayote is actually a fruit. All parts of the plant are edible, from the root to its leaves to its one seed. The chayote is quite adaptable: easily juiced or made into baby food; delightful in salads and salsas; happily sautéed, grilled or fried; and a welcome component to baked goods and desserts
Fun Facts about Chayotes:
- The chayote goes by many names: “custard marrow,” “vegetable pear” and “mirliton” — the latter used extensively in Louisiana. Others call it “christophine,” “choko,” “iskut,” “mango squash,” “xuxu” and “machuchu.”
- The vines of the chayote plant are durable but flexible, and are used in the making of hats and baskets.
- The word for chayote in Brazil is “chuchu” (or “xuxu”), which is also an affectionate name for someone such as “cutie” or “sweetie.”
- New Orleans has an entire festival dedicated to chayotes.
What to Look for When Buying Chayotes
Chayotes are available in different varietal shapes and sizes. The most common variety is pear-shaped. Chayotes range from being cream-like in color to pale green, darker green and even brown. Most chayotes are smooth-skinned with ridges (or “knuckles”). And some varieties are spiky — think a melon with a mohawk. In all types, the skin is edible.
Look for light to dark green skin when purchasing chayote, though some varieties are available in cream and brown. Seek out a firm chayote, as, unlike melons, a little softness is not an indication of sweetness so much as the fruit has begun to turn.
Sustainability of Chayotes
As chayotes are not commercially grown in the United States and are mostly cultivated small-scale (and often by home gardeners), they have limited environmental impact. However, much of the US chayote crop is imported from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Many of these countries rely heavily on pesticide use for chayote production, which can degrade soil, water and nearby plant and animal life.
Chayotes are ready for harvest generally between October and December.
Chayotes and Geography
Chayotes thrive in areas which have warm to hot summer months, such as Florida, the Gulf Coast and California.
Chayotes are native to Mesoamerica, likely originating in Mexico. They were cultivated by the Aztecs, but became popular across the globe after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food“. Since then, the gourd has been enjoyed in South American cuisines along with the cuisines of Southeast Asia, Australasia, Africa, North America and parts of Europe (such as — no surprise here — Spain).
In fact, Spanish influence is perhaps responsible for the chayote’s limited US fandom in but one state: Louisiana, where it has loomed large as a local specialty. Due to an influx of immigration from the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands to Louisiana in the 1700s, the chayote (later dubbed mirliton by the Haitian French-speakers also having immigrated there) made its way to the States, where it found its home in Louisiana. Despite the fame of chayotes in Louisiana, many of the varieties there were wiped out during Hurricane Katrina and have not yet recovered. However, current efforts to reinvigorate heirloom varietals by New Orleans residents could put chayotes back on the menu.
Storing Fresh Chayotes
Chayotes have tough skins and thus can last up to four weeks in the refrigerator, making them reliable post-harvest vegetables for the colder months.
Cooking with Chayotes
As a flexible food adaptable to many tastes and cuisines, chayotes are used with vastly different flavor profiles across the globe.
In some Asian countries, chayotes are often boiled and paired with meat in soups. In Mexico, chayotes are sometimes served in a traditional mole sauce or are dried and made into jams and sweets. Parts of Latin America use chayotes in sweeter dishes, much like we use pumpkin. Chayotes makes an interesting stand-in or addition to apples in an “apple” pie and can also be made into a bread, like zucchini. In Puerto Rico, chayotes are scrambled into eggs with ham or made into omelets. In Louisiana, chayotes are stuffed with shrimp or other seafood and served on the Thanksgiving table!
Chayotes can be pickled and preserved, like in this Chayote and Jicama Slaw, or made into a relish. Cut and then canned or frozen, chayotes can last up to a year and can be thrown into stews or sautéed in butter or oil.
Chayotes are high in carbohydrates and calories and lower in fiber and protein than many other fruits and vegetables. However, it is quite high in a range of amino acids, and sufficient in micro and macronutrients. As a generally inexpensive form of produce, it’s a real bang for your buck in terms of calorie intake and satiety.