A native plant of southeastern México and Central America, chaya is a wild plant that grows just as easily in the patios of many homes. From Pre-Hispanic times, the Maya used “chay” (as they called it) for gastronomic, medicinal, and curative purposes.
The chaya plant is a small bush with lots of leaves that shine in the sun. There are varieties with 3 to 5 points on the leaves; the one with 5 points is most common in Yucatán.
Always ask for permission
Because chaya was considered a sacred plant, there is a belief that one should “ask permission” before cutting the leaves, so their tiny thorns don’t prick your fingers. To say “good morning Mrs. Chaya, will you allow me to cut a few leaves?” is sufficient in case you have a plant of your own. The reality is that the thorns can be irritating, so you should probably use gloves.
La Chaya Medicinal Properties
Chaya belongs to the spinach family and provides enormous nutrients; it has a high content of protein, mineral salts, and enzymes. As for its medicinal properties, it is recommendable to consume it to improve high blood pressure, blood circulation, digestion, and reduce inflammation of veins and hemorrhoids. It is also known to reduce cholesterol and uric acid levels, reduce body weight, and improve retention of calcium in the body.
How to eat Chaya
The best part about chaya is its taste, and it can be enjoyed in a wide variety of dishes: soups, tamales, mixed with meat or eggs, alone as a garnish, as a decorative element, or as a beverage, alone or mixed with pineapple, lime, or mango. It is possible to invent new dishes such as “chayarroz” (chaya and rice), quesadillas, and more…if you have a culinary imagination you can use it to create many more dishes.
The recommended daily consumption is 2 to 6 leaves per day. It is very important that it be cooked or softened with water, as it can be toxic if eaten raw; it should only be eaten raw if mixed with acidic fruits like guayaba or lime. It should not be boiled in aluminum containers; preferably in clay, pewter, or glass.
Chaya in Traditional Yucatecan Cuisine
A traditional recipe you can try is “Brazo de Reina”, or “Dzotobichay”, ideal for vegetarian diets. You need 1/2 kilo of chaya leaves, cornmeal dough, lard, salt, banana leaves, ground pumpkin seed, and peeled, chopped hardboiled eggs. For the sauce you need tomato, onion, oil, and salt. Soften the chaya, chop it and mix it with the dough, lard, and salt. Form a tamal and fill it with the chopped egg. Cover it with banana leaves and cook it for an hour and a half. Meanwhile, the tomatoes are cooked with the onion, salt, and oil. Cut in slices and serve with the salsa and the ground pumpkin seed on top. Enjoy!
Chaya and its Diuretic Properties
Chaya is an excellent food supplement. It has diuretic properties if you drink an infusion on an empty stomach in the morning, and it also is an excellent source of protein, even as a substitute for meat. Its high content of Vitamin C can help prevent colds. It is a very complete vegetable…and delicious too!
Editorial by Violeta H. Cantarell
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