Chaya: Overlooked Deliciousness & Wonder Green of Belize?

Chaya or Maya Tree Spinach is native to the Yucatan and to Belize – it’s a food that you see in some of the local restaurants that serve some more typical cuisines – and once in a while you see packages of it at the local green grocer.

Chaya is the most delicious green that most people have probably never tried – or even heard of.

What is it?  How do you use it?  And…I’ll tell you why I LOVE IT.  If you like spinach or collard greens or chard, you would LOVE THIS STUFF.

Chaya growing at Cayo Frances Farm & Fly

Because it actually grows easily here and produces ALOT.  It’s PACKED with protein and vitamins – this leaf runs circles around spinach and…it tastes awesome.

CHAYA.  Why have I looked right by ya.  (Sorry…I had to rhyme something with the word – it was begging for it.  I promise not to do it again)

I first ran into chaya once it had already been prepared.   At Elvi’s Kitchen Restaurant and the DELICIOUS Caribbean Chicken.  It may be my favorite dish there.  Other than the Caye Lime Pie and the Coconut Pie…and the Chiptole Mango Beef tacos…

I even learned how to make it one time with Chef Jenny herself.  Here was our end result.

The chicken is stuffed with cheese and chaya.  So ridiculously good.

Finn & Martini serves a Chaya Dip…hot cheese and onion and chaya and chips.  It’s SO rich and…I’m craving some right now.

I’ve seen it served at El Fogon Restaurant – in Chaya tamales and I’ve tasted it in smoothies- fresh juices.  Chaya and pineapple and ginger…maybe a bit of honey?  So so so so so so so ridiculously refreshing and tasty.

You can try it at my favorite breakfast spot in San Igancio – Pop’s Diner.  They do a chaya scramble that may be more chaya than eggs.  Really really great with their gorgeous fry jacks.

I also had it in Merida, Mexico and my AWESOME trip to the city with Tropic Air.  (Here’s all the food I ate on the trip and some of what makes the city so incredibly beautiful :  Merida:  So Many Things I LOVE About this City.)

The first restaurant we went to was La Chaya Maya – a famous spot that serves area typical to the Yucatan region and lots and lots of chaya.  We started off with the Jugo Chaya…

It’s even on the business card of Cayo Frances Farm & Fly.

But why isn’t this leaf that was such an integral part of Yucatan cooking for centuries still eaten as part of our regular diet?

There is LOTS of information on the plant on-line.  Some totally factual and some a bit more…speculative.  References to the “super food properties”, how it is a MIRACLE FOOD and how it cures disease.  Here are some interesting facts about this plant that was and still is actively used by the Maya.

  • Chaya is richer than spinach in iron and has lots of potassium and calcium (Source)
  • It’s considered to be one of the most productive leaf crops in cultivation (Source)
  • The Maya not only ate chaya but used it as medicine – often drinking it in teas.  Teas that are still used today

I’ve been seeing it for sale recently at Mrs Gotay’s Fruit Stand in Boca Del Rio – $3bzd for a gorgeous hand tied bunch that looks like a wedding bouquet – and I’ve seen it for the same price in a bag of the Greenhouse.

Just ask if they have it – it’s the easiest way.

It’s there in the refrigerator next to the $10bzd mixed greens and the $14 kale.  And it tastes better…really!

We also grow it at the camp – at Cayo Frances Farm & Fly.  Basically, you need to plunk a stick in the ground…keep it watered and the Wish Willy’s off of it.  Iguanas LOVE baby chaya leaves!

But what to do with it at home?

Three things that we’ve been cooking with chaya.  (Please check my NOTE at the bottom first)

Remove the leave from the stem.

Chaya sauteed on low heat with any sort of pork fat is beyond delicious.  Maybe a bit of onion…so good.  (Here’s a recipe in the Smitten Kitchen for Swiss Chard, garlic chips and spaghetti – just use chaya instead!)

I love to saute it on low heat with garlic and olive oil and mix it with pasta.  Lots of parmesan or feta on top?  So delicious.

OR…saute, again on low heat, until cooked thru (3-4 minutes) and then scramble with eggs.  I usually leave the leaves whole but you can absolutely chop them up.  Probably easiest to roll the leaves like a cigar and slice.  Chiffonade I think it’s called.

Play around with it.  Use it like you would spinach.  (AND if you are making Chaya Spanakopita, PLEASE invite me over to try. Or use in these Swiss Chard pancakes!  Oh my.)

NOTE:

There are two types of chaya – one has prickly hairs on the stem, one doesn’t.  The type we’ve been buying in town has no barbs.  If yours does, be careful!  These can cause itchy and rash.  Use gloves when removing the stems.

Also, there is information online about toxins in chaya.  You are warned not to eat it raw – and to cook it for a minimum of 15 minutes.

I have had NO problem with it – and I know that it is served raw in juices both here and in Mexico.  But if it is your first time eating chaya…please read the warnings and ease into it raw.

PLEASE…LET ME KNOW IF YOU HAVE HAD AN ISSUE!  I never had…and have never heard of any issues but I’m just getting it out there.

NOTE 2:  Any time your veggie stand has some new fruit or vegetable, try it!  I’ve tasted things that I do not like…but for the most part, I’ve found new favorites like custard apple and sapodilla.

I always ask what it is, how the stand owner prepares it and…if it’s ready.  All important questions.

Trying new foods is fun.

 






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  • Glad you mentioned the possible toxicity. I had read about that while in Belize and when I bought some, made sure to cook it well. Then in Merida, I was surprised to see it served raw in those delicious smoothies. Never had a problem with those, so maybe only a small % of people have an issue? Love all your suggestions…yummy!

    • Wilma

      The toxin is cyanide, so everyone will have a problem if they eat too much that is uncooked. The cooking cause the cyanide compounds to be evaporated. If you have a smoothie on occasion, it likely will cause no problems – still I wouldn’t recommend uncooked chaya. I love chaya and eat it often. I use the small leaves that are still shiny and make sure to cook it well.

      • Thanks. I agree – I wouldn’t try eating a ton. I’ve never heard of any problems from those who serve smoothies…but moderation is KEY! And I love it so much cooked – concentrate there!