Imagine a vegetable that is handheld, and very tough, which makes it easy to ship. It is versatile, used in cuisines from Mexican to Indonesian to south Indian to Australian to Louisiana. The entire vegetable is edible — skin, flesh, seeds, shoots, leaves, flowers, and roots. It can be eaten raw or steamed, boiled, baked, stuffed, fried, and marinated. It is quite good for you, and is high in vitamin C, folate, fiber, and various trace minerals.
This vegetable is the chayote, and basically nobody likes it.
The chayote, variously called the laplap, chowchow, mirliton, and Buddha’s hand melon, is a squash, just like zucchini and cucumber, which also means, like all other squashes, it is native to the Americas. More specifically, it is native to central Mexico, where it can be thought of as the Mexican version of zucchini: given the right circumstances, it grows like a crazy weed and produces a huge amount of edible fruit (the squash/melon/gourd family members are all botanically fruits, not vegetables).
Typically a light green, firm fruit, the chayote is shaped a bit like a pear, but with a deep, sort of inappropriate-looking cleft down the middle of it. Some varieties are a darker green and are covered in spikes. I avoid that kind because it clearly does not want me to eat it. It’s not hard to find, at least in grocery stores that stock even the most banal of “ethnic” foods; in Brooklyn, where obviously I live because where else would a shithead like me live, I can find it at supermarkets (Key Foods, Pioneer, etc.) and at my neighborhood’s ethnic markets, which are mostly Jamaican and Panamanian. It costs a dollar or two.
Chayote doesn’t inspire much love. In central Mexico, it is served with mole. That is a dubious honor because mole, the fantastically complex sauce which may or may not contain chocolate, is served with the blandest possible ingredients, with the intention of emphasizing the sauce. Mole is often served with, like, boiled chicken. And chayote.
But I think this is unfair to the chayote, which is a very bizarre and interesting vegetable. Raw, which I would suggest as one of the best ways to eat it, it is not very similar to its sisters, the summer squash. Instead it tastes sort of like a jicama: mildly sweet, incredibly crisp and juicy, somewhere between a potato and an apple, or a crisp pear. But unlike the jicama, which is tan on the outside and pale white on the inside, the chayote has a distinct green-ness to it. It tastes — and I am aware this sounds weird — a little bit like the way freshly mown grass smells. In a good way, I think. It’s very strange.
The chayote, like more popular New World crops (chiles, tomatoes, corn), was exported around the world once the Europeans landed in Mexico, and it can be found in some traditional dishes in the Old World, especially in Southeast Asia. It took to the soil in Australia as if it belonged there all along; it is common in Australia to grow chayote (it’s called “choko” there) right in the yard, against chain-link fences, which the chayote will climb. There’s also a fun rumor in Australia that McDonald’s apple pies were actually made with chayote, partly because the chayote keeps its crisp texture scarily well, even, presumably, while encased in cornstarched applesauce inside a fast food pie. (McDonald’s denies the rumor.)
It’s hard to come up with just a few recipes for the chayote, because it is so versatile. I haven’t even begun to explore all the ways you can cook the thing, partly because I’ve never seen the roots, shoots, or leaves here in New York, even though they’re all edible. But I think it really is an interesting, underused ingredient, especially in slaws and salads, where it can take the place of apples when the apple is out of season. In fact I think it’s better than apples in salads, more vegetal and not so overpoweringly sweet. Anyway here are some things to do with the chayote, which you should buy the next time you see it, because what do you have to lose? Worst case scenario, you can just bite into the thing. It tastes better than you think.
Shopping list: Plain Greek yogurt, chayote, garlic, fresh dill, fresh mint, olive oil, lemon
Tzatziki is one of my all-time favorite dip-type things; traditionally it’s made with cucumber, but I actually like it more with chayote, which will not ever become soggy. To make: take a microplane grater (I have this one, it’s great) and grate two to four large cloves of garlic on it until you have a paste. Chop your dill and mint finely (do not use dried herbs for this; you need the natural oils in the fresh herbs to kind of penetrate and be broken down by the yogurt, which won’t happen with dried herbs).
Slice the chayote into small cubes, less than a centimeter on each side. Don’t peel the chayote; the skin may look tough, but it’s very thin and tender. The inner part of the chayote has one large seed and a kind of pale section surrounding it. Remove the seed but don’t worry about the pale part, chop that as you would anything else. (The seed, by the way, is totally edible, so include it if you want.)
Mix a big container of plain Greek yogurt — of the big brands, Fage is best, while Chobani is bullshit — with the chayote, the herbs, and the garlic. Squeeze in about half a lemon’s worth of lemon juice, plus salt and pepper to taste. Pour olive oil over the top. Serve with pita bread or crudite, put it on a burger, spread on a tortilla along with whatever else and make a wrap.
Chayote Som Tam Salad
Shopping list: Chayote, peanuts, garlic, cherry tomatoes, green beans, Thai bird’s-eye chiles, dried shrimp, brown sugar, fish sauce, limes, cilantro
Special equipment: Mortar and pestle
This dish, perhaps the national dish of Thailand, is usually made with green papaya, which I can never, ever find. Know what I can find? Chayote. It is probably the best green papaya replacement I’ve ever used. Everything else about this recipe is super traditional (except I use brown sugar instead of palm sugar, I suppose).
In your mortar and pestle, add a few cloves of garlic and a Thai chile and bash them with the pestle. The Thai style for this is up and down smashing, very different from the against-the-wall-of-the-mortar smushing common in Mexican cooking. (The sound a Thai pestle makes is typically written as “pok pok,” which is where the name of an excruciatingly cool restaurant in Portland and Brooklyn comes from.) When the garlic and chile is basically a rough paste, add in a few dried shrimps. I like the slightly bigger ones, not the teensy baby shrimps, but they work fine too. Then add in a handful of peanuts and bash just a bit more; you want the peanuts to be broken but not a paste.
Slice your chayote into matchsticks. This is sort of a pain. The best option is a julienne blade for a mandoline; they usually come with the mandoline when you buy it. A shredder disc-blade for a food processor will work okay. A knife will of course do the job but will be super slow. Anyway do this, somehow. Toss the chayote matchsticks into the mortar and lightly bruise it with the pestle, kind of tossing it around (a spoon in one hand and pestle in the other will help) to mix everything together.
Make your dressing: sugar, lime juice, fish sauce. The specific ratio will vary based on your limes, on the variety of fish sauce, on how spicy your chiles are that day, all kinds of stuff. Just add and taste: it shouldn’t be too sweet, too sour, or too fishy. When it tastes good, add it to the mortar as well and mix everything together. To serve, mix the salad with a few halved cherry tomatoes, some green beans chopped into inch-long pieces, and top with some cilantro.
Roasted Chayote With Chimichurri
Shopping list: Chayote, olive oil, garlic, red onion, red wine vinegar, serrano chile, cilantro, parsley, oregano, goat cheese
Using that microplane again, grate a few cloves of garlic. Chop about a quarter of the onion as finely as you can, and place the garlic and onion in a glass tupperware. Cover with red wine vinegar and let sit as you do the rest of this.
Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Cut a few chayotes into cubes, removing the seed, and toss in a lot of olive oil, like, more than you think you need. Maybe a quarter of a cup? Pour this all onto a baking sheet and roast for about half an hour until the chayote is browned and tender (it’ll never get soft).
Take a whole bunch of each of the herbs and chop them roughly. Chop a single serrano, removing the seeds if you don’t want it to be very spicy. Throw that all in a food processor, then dump the vinegar/garlic/onion mix on top. Turn on the food processor and pour olive oil in while it’s processing; this is a very oily sauce, more liquid than a pesto. It should almost look like a chunky herb oil.
When the chayote is done, remove from oven and salt/pepper to taste. Put in a dish and crumble a bunch of goat cheese over the top, then spoon the chimichurri sauce all on top and around. Eat greedily.
I don’t know that a weirdly crispy pear-squash thing that looks like something your fourth grade teacher would hold up during Sex Ed is ever going to be trendy. I can’t remember the last time I saw it on a menu in New York, even though it’s in season basically year-round and goes with any flavor you can throw at it. But that’s almost more of a reason to try the thing. After all, can’t we all kind of identify with the perpetually unloved vegetable?
Photo by debaird