Photo by Kelly Yandell
On a visit to New Orleans last year, I spotted a festival poster promising food, music, art and Mirlitons. Who are these Mirlitons, I wondered, and why are they holding a festival?
Thanks to Google, I quickly discovered that the mirlitons are not a who, but a what—an avocado-shaped, bright green squash, more commonly known in Texas and the Southwest as chayote. Harvested in the fall, chayote (Sechium edule) is a curious member of the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, along with its relatives the melon, squash and cucumber.
Mirliton (pronounced me-lay-taw) is its name in the French-influenced Creole and Cajun communities of Louisiana. Knowing the quirky New Orleans neighborhood of Bywater, I wasn’t surprised they would have an annual festival in honor of a littleknown puckered vegetable the color of a vibrant piece of celery. I became curious about this newfound food and when I returned to Dallas, I wanted to learn more.
The chayote—or mirliton—can be found all over the world, and there are as many names for it as there are ways to prepare it. Most sources cite chayote as being native to Mexico while others suggest that it may have originated in Guatemala where it is known as guisquil. It is thought to have found its way to Louisiana via the free people of color following the Haitian Slave Revolt in the late 1700s.
Many in the Caribbean call it christophine. It’s cho-cho in Jamaica, pepinello in Italy and iskus in Bhutan. In the Philippines, people call it sayote and refer to it as hanging gold. On Réunion Island in the Seychelles, they call it chou chou and use the vines to make hats and slippers. In China, the word for chayote means “Buddha’s hands” because the shape of the vegetable resembles praying hands. Here in the United States, it is also known as pear squash or vegetable pear.
Armed with knowledge and recipes, I made my way to the grocery store where I bought a bag of chayote and began experimenting. You can find it at specialty grocers catering to Asian and Latino customers as well as at Whole Foods and Central Market. A versatile vegetable, chayote takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with and can be prepared in a myriad of ways: pickled, stuffed, raw and curried, in soups, breads, and salads. Not only can the fruit itself be eaten, but the seed, tubers and leaves are edible as well.
Besides its flexibility, chayote comes with a list of health benefits, too. It is high in vitamin C and amino acids, is low in calories, if eaten raw or cooked with a light seasoning, and contains plenty of antioxidants. According to some, drinking a tea made of chayote leaves will help dissolve kidney stones and treat hypertension and arteriosclerosis.
Curious if any Dallas chefs were using chayote, I set out on a search and found it a common ingredient in a number of restaurants with Mexican-influenced cuisine. A native of Guanajuato, Nico Sanchez, the Executive Chef of MesoMaya, uses chayote in a variety of dishes, and his menu, a departure from the traditional Tex-Mex fare, is full of surprises. His lightly sautéed redfish is served with julienned chayote smothered in a bold tomato and caper sauce over a bed of rice. The delicate flavor of the squash is transformed by the rich, tangy flavors of the sauce. MesoMaya’s menu frequently includes chayote stuffed with Chihuahua cheese, ham and corn. Chef Sanchez also incorporates it into his Sopa de Lima, a soothing chicken-vegetable soup.
Growing chayote can be a very rewarding adventure. Chef Sanchez grows chayote at his home for his own personal use. Farmer Beverly Thomas of Cold Springs Farm in Weatherford has been growing it for four years. The first year she grew a variety she purchased from Mirlitons.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving New Orleans’ heirloom mirlitons.
Once in abundance, the city’s vines were nearly wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav. The harsh winter of 2011 wiped out Beverly’s heirloom variety, but she was able to start new plants with chayote she purchased at the grocery store.
Unlike other squash, the chayote seed is nestled inside the vegetable and only germinates while tucked inside. To encourage germination, place several in a cool, dark place and wait for a sprout to emerge from the puckered larger end. This usually takes several weeks. Ideally, begin this process in December for an early spring planting. Allow the sprout to get approximately five inches long before putting it into the ground. Once the fruit germinates, place the entire squash, fat end down, into a container or directly into the earth.
When planting your sprouted chayote, cover with soil allowing the top part of the vegetable to peek out about two inches. It prefers sandy, loam soil that is well drained. The plant can become quite expansive and its vines require a horizontal trellis or a fence line. The squash is harvested in the fall, and the root of the plants can survive, depending on the harshness of the winter, from year to year. If they don’t, you can start over with new chayote sprouts the following season.
It’s surprising that this amazing little squash known so well around the world is still a mystery to many in mainstream foodie communities. As an experiment, I carried a chayote with me for two months, asking friends and strangers if they knew what it was. A couple of people recognized it but didn’t know what it was called. A squash by any other name would be just a squash, but the chayote–aka mirliton–is versatile, nutritious, delicious and—most definitely worth discovering.