From the bottom, chayote fruit reminds me of a grumpy sock-puppet. I wish I had added googly eyes.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sechium edule
COMMON NAMES: A plethora, many of which don’t resemble the word chayote at all, such as mirliton (Louisiana), choko (Australia), christophine (Caribbean), chuchu (Brazil), and vegetable pear. The golden prickles on some varieties of chayote give rise to the Chinese name of lóng xü cài (龙须菜), “dragon-whisker vegetable.”
ORIGIN: “Chayote” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) name chayohtli, and the Aztecs were the first people to cultivate the plant. Like tomato and many other indigenous Mexican crops, chayote was spread far and wide by Europeans after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. It is now cultivated and eaten throughout the world’s warm regions, especially in the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of Asia.
- Sliced chayote with the soft, edible seed left in.
- An enduring Australian food legend claims that McDonald’s apple pies are filled with choko (chayote) disguised as real apple. While this is false, it is true that Australians once added chayote to pies during food shortages to stretch canned apples and pears, making this perhaps the most innocuous food secret McDonald’s has been accused of keeping.
- The small Colombian mountain town of San Bernardo is known for the unusually well-preserved remains of its dead. No one knows exactly why people mummify after death in San Bernardo, but some attribute it to a local diet rich in chayote and another fruit, a tree-bean called balú. As the miraculous mummification preserves clothing and objects as well as bodies, it can’t all be chalked up to diet, although chayote is said to promote cellular regeneration.
- Like some other gourds, all parts of the chayote plant are edible, including the large seed inside the fruit. The roots are similar to potatoes, while the shoots and leaves are prized for soups, salads and stir-fries. The fruit may be eaten raw or cooked.
FLAVOR: Raw chayote has a pleasant, crisp texture similar to apple and a faint sweetness. Because the flavor is so mild, think of chayote as one of those “blank canvas” type of ingredients that readily accepts a range of seasonings. I tried two completely different recipes with mine and they both turned out delicious (half went into a Thai salad with fish sauce, sugar, tomato, apple and cashews, and half was sauteed with butter, garlic and parsley, a combination of ingredients which reminded me inescapably of escargot).
Above: first meeting between long-lost cousins, featuring Vasuki.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Trichosanthes cucumerina (Cucumerina? If anyone needs a cucurbit-themed drag name…..)
COMMON NAMES: snake gourd, serpent gourd, chichinda, padwal. Some varieties of calabash with skinny, twisty fruits may be called “snake gourds” as well, but Trichosanthes is snakier.
ORIGIN: Found wild throughout southern Asia, the Pacific Islands and northern Australia and also cultivated in Africa, snake gourd was likely domesticated in India, where it is widely enjoyed today, especially fried or in curry. References to various gourds including snake gourd and the ubiquitous calabash can be found in the Rig Veda, a series of Hindu religious texts dating back to 1700 BCE that represent some of the oldest surviving religious literature in the world. In Sanskrit, the snake gourd was called patola or tiktapatola, a name still in use for some other gourd species.
- A related species called Chinese snake gourd (Trichosanthes kirilowii) is counted among the Fifty Fundamental Herbs that form the backbone of Chinese herbology. Believed to have beneficial effects on the lungs and other organs, it must be used with caution, as it contains a toxic protein called trichosanthin. (Note that our edible snake gourd is just that: edible, and totally safe. Don’t judge him based on his relatives.)
- The beautiful, fragrant flowers of the snake gourd vine resemble delicate white lace. As they unfurl only at night, they are mainly pollinated by hawk-moths. (Remember the moth with a skull on its back from Silence of the Lambs? That’s a hawk-moth.)
- As in some other gourd species, snake gourd is too bitter to eat when fully ripened. The inner pulp of the mature fruit is a reddish-orange color and can be used as a substitute for tomato paste.
- Snake gourds hang down from their high-climbing vine and may twist or curl as they develop. Some farmers suspend weights from the young fruits so they grow straight, purely for aesthetics.
FLAVOR: Refreshing and similar to cucumber, but the texture is less crunchy and more fleshy, like a zucchini. Unlike cucumber, snake gourd holds up well to cooking. However, before cooking the sliced gourd pieces it’s recommended to salt them, let sit for 10-15 minutes and squeeze out the excess water.
I sliced up my snake gourd and made it into a curry using a modification of this recipe (I used chickpeas instead of black gram beans and also some South Indian ingredients: shredded coconut and tamarind extract).
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