What the hell are Chayotes?

One of the more esoteric forms of bianda, or root plants, that we use is our cooking are chayotes. So what are they? Well, a chayote is a pear-shaped tropical fruit whose flavor is akin to that of a cucumber. It is normally light green in color. It has a large pit and edible flesh and skin, though in Puerto Rican cooking we normally peeled the things before eating. It's mild flavor lends itself to a variety of dishes. Even though it's categorized as a fruit, we use it as a vegetable, that's why it's included in our root plant pantheon. The chayote has a variety of names depending upon the place and region. They are known as christophene or christophine, mirliton or merleton, Guatila, Centinerja, Pipinola, pear squash, guisquil, Cidra, chucha, choko, and even cho-cho. Chayotes, according to the experts, are either native to Mexico or Central America. Though it's assume the word itself is a Spanish derivative of the Aztec word chayohtli (pronounced chah-yoh-tleel). And they are very popular throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

In our cuisine, we prepare them peeled, boiled until tender, cut into chunks, and  serve with olive oil and vinegar. We also serve them in salads, as in the dish noted below, ensalada de tomate y chayote (tomato-chayote salad).

Where can you get these things? They are available in any Caribbean markets and most Asian markets. Better stocked fruit markets will also carry them. Most Americans don't know about chayotes, and that's a shame. They are great as appetizers, as a side dish for seafood, fowl or meat, and (as shown) in salads. Once you taste them, they will become a part of your repertoire. And, the recipe given below is from my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America.

            (Tomato-Chayote Salad)

3 medium-sized chayotes, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
1 bunch watercress
2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1/4 cup ripe pitted olives, sliced in half

6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

1. Place chayotes in a pot or saucepan with water to cover by one inch. Cook in boiling water until fork tender (5-7 minutes).
2. Drain, remove seeds and cut into bite-sized chunks.
3. Cut off and discards the tough stems of the watercress. Rinse under cold water and spin or pat dry.
4. In a bowl, combine chayotes, tomatoes, watercress and olives.
5. Combine dressing ingredients in a cruet or tightly covered jar. Shake well and pour over salads. Toss and serve.
    Yield: 6 servings.

photo: courtesy of Specialty Produce