If you live in Puerto Morelos, or any other nearby village, and you have a backyard PAY ATTENTION. It might just be that you have some very valuable greens there.
Pronounced “cha” as in “charm” and “ya” as in “yard”, this luscious green shrub can be a fantastic addition to your diet and an excellent way to start learning some truly mexican recipes.
According to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City, ingesting chaya will:• Improve blood circulation, • help digestion, • improve vision, • disinflame veins and hemorrhoids, • help lower cholesterol, • help reduce weight, • prevent coughs, • augment calcium in the bones, • decongest and disinfect the lungs, • prevent anemia by replacing iron in the blood, • improve memory and brain function and • combat arthritis and diabetes.
So clear up some prime real estate in your fridge -yes, that area neighbouring your most beloved super-foods- and make way for the amazing (cue the drums) Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: Chaya.Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It is a quick-growing perennial shrub that can reach up to 6 meters high, although it is often pruned short for leaf harvest. This prolific plant is very popular in Mexican and Central American gastronomy not just for its flavour but also for its nutritional value.
Chaya is an outstanding source of protein, vitamin A, calcium, iron and it is full of antioxidants. 100 grams of its leaves may contain up to 33% protein.
It also contains calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins such as carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid. An array of different acids such as: aspartic, glutamic,serine, threonine, proline, alanine, glycine, valine, methionine, isoleucine, leucine, tyrosine, phenylalanine, lysine and arginine are also present. Compared with chard and spinach, chaya contains seven times more of these acids!
There is a catch though, you MUST cook it to eat it. Raw chaya leaves are toxic for they contain a glucoside that can release toxic cyanide. Also, there are arguably 4 varieties of Chaya and some (not all) have stinging hairs and require gloves for harvesting.
Our suggestion: skip the raw chaya salad and just use a single leaf in your smoothies (toxins are volatile and just trace amouts would be found in such a small quantity it won’t be harmful).
Make sure you cook the leaves by simmering them for 20 minutes, this will inactivate the toxic elements and destroys the stinging hairs. Keep in mind that the stock left behind is full of vitamin C and safe for consumption since the cyanide is volatilized as hydrogen cyanide (HCN) during simmering. Also, avoid cooking chaya leaves in aluminium pots; this can result in a toxic reaction leaving you with a few too many visits to the powder room (a.k.a. diarrhea).
Bottom line is that all varieties are eatable after cooking and that the heavy weight punch of nutrition you will get from chaya is well worth learning how to work with the plant.
Gourmet freaks: Get crazy with Chaya
Cooked chaya served with a little melted butter or if you prefer it, vegan style, with a lug of cold press olive oil and a squirt of lime, is bliss.
So, you can flirt with the idea of traeling to Mérida and preparing for your next Yucatan Cuisine inspired dinner party, or even better: call on Rosa Mexicano‘s Patricia Dieguez for a one-on-one course on Chaya dishes right in your home .
Living and traveling trough out Mexico or Central America, you will find chaya in menus and supermarkets, jump right in and give it a try! For the adventurers out there, you can also find this plant in the wild. Take it from Green Deanne; he is a professional forager with 60 years of experience and has much respect for this wholesome plant.
Now if you are serious about being LocoLocal (and have a green thumb), why not try to grow your own chaya? This shrub is one of the most productive green vegetables, it is resistant to insects, tolerates different types of soil, can survive in different climates and on top of that, it grows very fast.
If you are a chaya virgin, we would love to hear from your first rendezvous with this Mexican super-food. And if you are already a chaya compadre share your recipes, gardening tips and sting remedies with us!