And…we’re back! In a previous iteration of Adventures in Eating in the November issue of Yucatán Today, we touched on some of the less common edibles in the rural Yucatán diet, such as armadillo and iguana. However, the article concentrated on Ni Chac, commonly known as wasp larvae. Go back and read about the nutty, squirmy tastiness of popping these little white morsels into your mouth. It’s the protein of the future!
This time around, we’re looking at two vegan or vegetarian-friendly options that are distinctly “Muy Yucateco.”
Chaya – An Ancestral Superfood
First, there’s the Chaya, the leafy green plant that appears in the logo of the popular Chaya Maya restaurant in downtown Mérida. Many of you are already familiar with this local plant, sold in bunches in markets and growing on bushes in any good Yucatecan home, along with the obligatory Limón tree.
The Chaya’s appearance and exceptional nutritional content has made it comparable to spinach. In fact, many tour guides when pointing out the plant to visitors, call it “Maya spinach” which makes it somewhat more understandable I suppose. I have it on good authority that it is actually much richer in antioxidants and protein than regular spinach, but we’ll leave that analysis to the nutritional scientists.
In Yucatán, Chaya is a popular element in the kitchen and traditional cooking, from drinks blended with Limón and occasionally pineapple, to the famous Brazo de Reina, with Pepita and Chaya mixed into corn Masa to create a delicious and satisfying meal.
These days, Chaya can be tried in many restaurants and refreshment stops all over the city and the state – it is quite ubiquitous here.
A Pepino, That’s Not a Pepino
And with that, we will now divert our attention to a much lesser-known vegetable (or is it a fruit?) endemic to Yucatán and which is increasingly rare: the Pepino Kat.
The so-called Pepino Kat is neither a Pepino (cucumber) nor is it feline (Kat) as either of those two terms would imply. The plant is not at all related to vine plants such as cucumber, watermelons, or squash, but is rather to tree-borne fruit like the Jícara (gourd) used by the Maya to this day as handy and ecologically-friendly kitchen utensils.
It is called a Pepino because it really does look like a cucumber, hanging from a tree that is usually about 4-6 meters in height when fully mature. The fruit – for it turns out that it is officially classified as a fruit – is available throughout the year, except for the months of December and January.
Parmentiera aculeate, which is a mouthful in itself as well as being the official scientific name, is prepared like many a vegetable, in a traditional Yucatecan recipe called Salpimentado. In this recipe, the Pepino that is not a Pepino forms part of a variety of local veggies which accompany pork and beef in a kind of soup. It can also be prepared as a dessert, much like the Dulce de Papaya, and can be found on some local restaurant menus made with Papaya Verde (unripe, cooked and sweetened papaya).
How would I describe the taste? Well, actually it has a rather neutral effect on the palate and is more of what I would call a filler that can add volume and texture to a soup, stew, or other similarly liquid-based dish. The sweet version is again, mostly texture and sweet cinnamon, especially good if served with something sharp and savory like a piece of Edam cheese (Queso de Bola); you could also go upscale and slather it over Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream.
To get you motivated, find some Pepino Kat at your local market (not supermarket, a real local veggie market) and try this sweet recipe:
Dulce de Pepino Kat
(Recipe by local culinary queen Mrs. Maru Rodriguez).
- Peel the Pepino Kat as best you can, it’s not a deal breaker if some bits of the peel (washed of course) remain.
- In a pot, heat up 3 cups of water and add 1 kilo of sugar. Stir this and add a few sticks of cinnamon.
- When the sugar is dissolved add 1 kilo of thinly-sliced Pepino Kat.
- Continue cooking on low heat, stirring all the while, until the syrup has reached the desired consistency. The fruit will cook quickly. The preferred consistency of the author is thick as opposed to watery.
- Then cool and refrigerate. Enjoy after a solid Yucatecan meal.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Photography by Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today.
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