[Vegetable Pear, Mango squash (English); Christophene, Cho-cho, Tayota (Caribbean); Mirliton, Merliton (Cajun, Creole); Choko (Australia); Chouchou (Africa); Sayota (Philippine), Sayongte, Fak maeo (Thai); Gayota (Latin America); Chow chow, Bengaluru vankayya (India); Labu siam (Indonesia); PLU #4761; Sechium edule]
Pronounced chy-O-tay, this vegetable is technically not a squash because it belongs to genus C. Sechium not C. Cucurbita, but it's normally called a squash. An odd squash it is - it looks like a giant seed. Each "squash" consists of a very large embryo within a smooth but very soft and thin seed coat, and a thick layer of flesh over that. A notch is left at the wide end through which the seed sprouts. Native to Central America, chayotes are now grown worldwide. they are quite popular in India and Southeast Asia, but the two biggest exporters are Costa Rica (mostly to Europe) and Veracruz Mexico (mostly to the U.S.).
The photo shows two regular Chayotes, which average about 3 inches across, 4-3/4 inches long and weight about 9 ounces each. There is also a smaller rounder variety with a dark green skin that has better flavor but is very rarely seen here. There are also yellow varieties (Perulero) and very dark green ones (Guisquil) grown in Guatemala. The big 2 pound spiky chayote in the back has excellent flavor, but you won't see them in most regions. Grocery people hate them because they'll stab you right through bags and lightweight gloves. Food writers have been endlessly puzzled by early reports that the chayote was "like a porcupine" because they were unaware of this variety.
Perulero - [White chayote, Yellow chayote; Sechium edule]
This variety has just started showing up here in Los Angeles, and is
selling at a premium price, 2014 US $2.14 / pound. The name means
"from Peru", but these are mostly grown in Guatemala, probably near the
town of El Perulero. Their flavor is quite mild, but has the same zucchini
- green been - cucumber taste as the regular ones. This variety is just
slightly prickly, mostly at the wide end, but there are very spiky
varieties. The photo specimen to the left
was 4 inches long, 3-1/2 inches wide and weighed 11-3/8 ounces. In the
photo, you can just make out the outline of the cotyledons (embryonic
leaves) in the cut specimen.
Shoots & Leaves
are also edible and are a common vegetable in the Philippines,
Taiwan and Thailand. Root Tubers are starchy
and edible, used similarly to yams.
The flavor of chayote fruit is often described as a blend of zucchini, green bean and cucumber, which is fairly accurate. The flesh is starchy and stays reasonably firm when cooked. Chayote is rich in vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium, magnesium and fiber.
Buying: Chayotes are available in all markets serving Latin American communities and often in markets serving Southeast Asian or Indian communities. Look for smooth fresh appearance and no bruises, soft spots or discoloration. If you can find a variety with dark green skin it will probably be more flavorful but the light green variety dominates the markets. Young ones with thin skin don't have to be peeled.
Storing: They'll keep a few days at room temperature or about a week refrigerated. They need fairly high humidity so they won't shrivel.
Cooking: If your chayotes are mature with thick skins you need to peel them, The toughest skins are easy to remove after cooking, and young chayotes with tender skins can be eaten skin-on. In the middle are the ones with skins too tough to eat but too tender to pull off easily.
I've read that if you peel them raw they exude a sticky substance that's difficult to wash off your hands. I've peeled plenty with a vegetable peeler but have failed to experience this substance.
Inside are two large embryonic leaves (cotyledon). These are a tasty morsel with a lightly nutty flavor, generally eaten by the cook as soon as the chayotes are done, and seldom getting to the table. The seed coat that surrounds the embryo is soft so need not be removed.
Chayote chunks can be put into soups raw if the soup will have a reasonably long cooking time, otherwise steam or simmer until done, about 20 to 25 minutes, and add to the recipe when it is almost done.
Chayote is sometimes grated and added to salads raw, but they are usually cut into cubes and cooked, even if they will appear on a raw salad plate. They are popular this way in Southeast Asia.
Chayote Greens - [pucuk labu (Malay); Long xu cai, Dragon Whiskers Vegetable (Chinese)]
These are rather pleasant greens, though a touch coarse, with a basic flavor similar to the Chayote squash, but, well, greener. They are suitable for soups and stews as they don't turn to mush within a reasonable cooking time. I definitely prefer these to Long Bean or Squash leaves, also found in the Philippine markets.
In Southeast Asia these may be stir fried with garlic, but more commonly with garlic and dried anchovies or dried shrimp. They are also prepared with shiitake mushrooms in Vietnam.
Buying: These are easiest to find in a large Philippine market, of which we have plenty here in Southern California - because our entire health care system runs on Philippine immigrants. My local market puts out bundles of greens on Friday or Saturday morning for sale over the weekend.
Do not depend on the sign. Various greens tend to get jumbled in the markets, and they presume their customers know what they're buying. Note the many straight and curled tendrils (the "dragon whiskers"). The leaves are medium size, fairly thin, devoid of fuzz, and have a sandpaper feel on the dark side.
Storing: Loosely wrapped, these greens will last several days in the fridge, if they were in good shape to start with.
Prep: Strip the leaves and tender tips from the tough stems, discarding the stems. You can use stems at the tip to the point where they will snap off cleanly. The tendrils can be used, though they will make your dish a bit coarser, but not the stems they originate from. Unlike many greens, the leaf stems are not as tough as the main stems, and those of smaller leaves can be used, again, to the point where they snap off cleanly.
Cooking: Simmering time should be about 10 minutes, though the leaves will still hold together well and are not mushy at 20 minutes. Steaming should be a little longer.
Yield: A 1 pound 10 ounce bunch yielded 14 ounces edible (54%), but your bunches may vary. One recipe called for "2 bunches, about 300 grams". Here in Los Angeles, a single bunch can run 800 grams, so I have no idea what the yield from her bunches would be.
Chayote Roots - [Ichintal]
The tuberous part of the chayote root is starchy and edible, used
similarly to yams, but for some reason has attracted little attention as
a potential agricultural crop.
Photo by U.S. Government = Public Domain.