Getting a little tired of kale? Chaya can feed your appetite and your curiosity. The best way to discover it? Take a trip to Yucatan where it has been used for centuries and is integrated into the Mayan culinary tradition as much as the habanero pepper and Xtabentun — the honey-based and anise-flavored liqueur — that are also typical to the Mexican Peninsula.
The first time I heard and tasted chaya was six-plus years ago in a little restaurant in Playa del Carmen in the form of a drink. The leaves were blended in an ice cold beverage made with water, sugar and lime: beautiful green, discreet herbaceous flavor and definitely refreshing. Chaya’s aficionados, however, focus on its health benefits, recommending it for countless ailments, including diabetes, kidney stones, obesity and acne.
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Chaya, also called tree spinach, is consumed as a diuretic and a stimulant for circulation and lactation, and it is believed to harden fingernails, improve vision, help lower cholesterol, prevent coughs, improve memory and combat diabetes, according to the Mexican National Institute of Nutrition. Scientific research has not been done to support these claims, but the nutritional value of the plant has been studied. It has more calcium and protein than kale, and two times more iron and crude fiber than spinach. It also has very high concentrations of potassium, vitamin C and carotenoids.
There is a cautionary note: Many sources say chaya should not be eaten raw. In that form it is toxic, with traces of cyanide. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, chaya leaves, like several other plants and leafy vegetables, “contain hydrocyanic glycosides, which are toxic compounds, but they are easily destroyed by cooking.” To use chaya raw, Latin American vendors have employed other techniques to counteract the toxicity, such as soaking the leaves in vinegar and water.
In Los Angeles, I looked for chaya in Latin supermarkets, but found none. A couple of months ago, I went back to Yucatan and headed toward Mérida, determined to try chaya in as many forms as possible. Mérida boasts some of the most beautiful colonial architecture of Mexico, and the population, which is primarily Mayan, has carried on the language and culinary traditions.
But before reaching Mérida, I made a stop in the small town of Valladolid and had dinner at the elegant Taberna de los Frailes where I tasted a delicious velvety soup that was made with chaya and beautifully garnished with cream. It tasted like spinach soup with a hint of watercress.
The next morning, at the traditional restaurant of the hotel Meson del Marques, I was served sauteed chaya with eggs for breakfast, which, I was to discover, is a classic all across Yucatan. The sauteed leaves alongside a simple tomato sauce made for tasty reflection of the green and red of the Mexican flag.
I made another stop in the beautiful “Yellow City” of Izamal, where most of the buildings are painted yellow and where the traditional restaurant Kinich came highly recommended. Besides the chaya drink, referred to as agua de chaya, the highlights of the meal were the empanadas de queso (cheese empanadas), which showed little resemblance to Argentine empanadas except for their half-moon shape. The dough was masa, also used for tortillas. The masa was mixed with finely chopped cooked chaya leaves that brought a beautiful freshness to the delicacy, oozing with cheese and accompanied by pickled red onions, a sauteed chaya leaf and a vibrant fresh tomato sauce.
Once at Mérida, chaya found me. It arrived at the romantic Casa Azul hotel, where the welcome drink is a chaya and lime virgin cocktail. Agua de chaya is served all around town, from inexpensive joints to high-end restaurants like the one inside the classic Mansión Mérida on the Park hotel.
Chaya seems to transcend social barriers. The popular ice cream parlor on the central square served kids and families some sticks of agua de chaya that was turned into a sorbet mixed with diced pineapple. The luxurious Hacienda San Jose, about an hour east of Mérida, served a wonderful dish of chaya leaves with chopped tomatoes and cream to diners with means.
I was eager to see how chaya was sold at the local markets. There were a few bags of the leaves, but not mounds of it as I suspected. Why? Chaya grows wild as a bush and many people get it from their backyards or in the wild, I was told by the vegetable vendors, but any reason beyond that was unclear.
After a week of eating chaya in many forms, did I feel in better health? I couldn’t say so, but the flavor and texture of this green that is close to spinach and Swiss chard had grown on me. Once I returned to the United States, I feared my search for chaya would again be fruitless. Research online led me to think that only Texas had good chaya, and I wasn’t hooked to the point of changing my residence for my fix.
What a happy surprise to discover that a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles called Chichen Itza not only sold “agua de chaya,” but also offered the plant for amateurs to grow. Buyers will be warned, however, that the vinegar-and-water method is a must for those who intend to use the leaves raw.
The allure of the trip to Mérida to taste chaya in its natural and cultural environment remains, but it was heartening to know there was another place closer to my home in Southern California to sample the wonders of chaya.
Main photo: Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer