The Culture of Food and Drink


Home / Cooking  / How To Drink In The Benefits Of Mayan Chaya Leaves

How To Drink In The Benefits Of Mayan Chaya Leaves

Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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.

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.

Empanadas de Queso with Chaya at Kinich restaurant in Izamal, Mexico. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Empanadas de queso with chaya at Kinich restaurant in Izamal, Mexico. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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.

Bags of chaya leaves in a market in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Bags of chaya leaves in a market in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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.

Chaya plants at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Chaya plants at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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



Zester Daily contributor Philip Sinsheimer works as a Los Angeles-based independent food, wine and travel writer as well as a personal chef and culinary instructor. Born and raised in Paris, he is the son of an American father from New York and a French mother of Alsatian background. In Paris, his doctoral research in the anthropology of eating habits at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales led him to write a book on the history of Italian pasta and contribute to the Slow Food movement via multiple articles published in "Slow."

 

41 COMMENTS
  • sandra barros 6·12·14

    Where can I find the plant or seeds in the Napa area?

  • Jon 7·12·14

    Hi Philip, great article. I want to know more about how they deal with the hydrocyanic glycosides if they are not cooking it. Did you see them soaking it in water or vinegar?

    I am working on a documentary on the spread of Chaya in Indonesia. It’s called “From Two Sticks”. Check out the trailer here: http://kck.st/RVoQBL

  • Philip Sinsheimer 9·21·14

    Hi Jon, thanks for the message and so sorry not to have answered before, I just took notice of it (an alert may have been sent by Zester and ended up in my spam folder or something).
    Anyway, to answer your question, yes the main technique used for consuming chaya without cooking was soaking it in a water and vinegar solution (I don’t have the precise proportions though). I have to say the people interviewed in Yucatan seemed rather relaxed about the toxicity of the plant.
    Congratulations on your documentary. I’ll keep in lind in case I tackle the subject again and make sure to refer to it.
    Very best,
    Philip

  • Gloria 1·9·15

    Thank you for your very helpful and informative article. My father is living proof of all its medicinal benefits. I just wish I had listened to him when he would tell us to drink the tea or eat the foods he would prepare. He has his own tree that he cherishes. Once again thanks for the article. By the way I work near the restaurant you mention will go try thier drink and buy
    a tree.

  • Sarah 5·18·15

    I got my first Chaya in 2007 in Tx for my dad who had type 1 diabetes. Person I bought it from was selling it because his father had type 2 diabetes and they kept a healthy supply in their yard. The only thing is his family ate it raw as well as cooked and only in summer season until it lost its leaves in the winter. It was the prickly kind with stinging hair. When We Moved back to Cali. 2008 my hubby got me the other variety without the stinging hair. And recently I got the one that looks like papaya leaves. I make chaya tea whenever I don’t feel well and it soothes the pressure in my head. That’s just me. My hubby or my daughters will boil it in a non aluminum pot and I would also make use of the leaves. The larger leaves are a little tough so i cut them smaller so it’s easier to eat. I’m not as creative with cooking them as others but my purpose of having chaya was for the health benefits. When cooking, don’t inhale the steam, cook ~15 mins boiling. I’ve eaten it raw in small bits (from when I bought our 1st one) but take the safe route. It’s good to have several bushes so you can have continous supply and not kill your tree. Some people even grow it in a greenhouse for year round supply. My chaya loves the shade but hot area. It produces dark green lush leaves in the shaded heat. I really believe in its health benefits and it’s very convenient when you can just go to the backyard and pick the leaves for a healthy dish. Oh and yes it has white sap. Good bush to invest in.

  • Philip Sinsheimer 5·19·15

    Hello Sarah and thank you for sharing your story and your tips regarding chaya in the Tx and Ca. I have to say the chaya lemonade and frozen fruit bars you can readily find in Yucatan are quite delicious and refreshing, which is a great relief to fight the heat. Have you ever been? Merida is a beautiful city and the people are so warm and welcoming. Very safe part of Mexico!
    Best
    Philip

  • Alondra 7·10·15

    My grandma in mexico gave my mom a small stem about 20 years ago, she brought it in her luggage from Jalisco Mexico to Riverside California and its been in her back yard since, about 7-8 years ago i started using it for my juices, lemonades, and some cooking too and it has never poisoned us. i just wash it really good with water and throw it in the blender. I don’t know why everyone keeps saying its toxic?
    i use up to 10-15 big leafs in a blender with water and green apple, cucumber, ginger, and anything else i find in my fridge. It does have a milky discharge when you cut the leafs off but thats never given me a rash or anything like i saw some one say.
    I don’t believe it’s toxic at all.
    maybe i will start washing it in water with vinegar tho just to be on the safe side but if in the 7 years I’ve been using it its never poisoned me why would it start now haha.

    Anywhoooo we have a huge tree of it if anyone wants some feel free to email me and we can work something out so you can come get some or something 🙂

    • Dayna 10·23·16

      Hi Alondra,

      I just saw your post. Are you still offering Chaya from your tree? I live in San Jose. Please let me know, I have been trying to get some but have had no luck because of the season….

    • Tammy Terrell 4·4·17

      Hi there read this article and your comment I live in southern Iowa and I would like a plant. For use for health benefits and to keep diabetes out of my life I have been boarder line and to help with obesity issues.
      Tammy Terrell

    • PHILIP E SINSHEIMER 4·4·17

      Alondra, thanks for your input. I know I’ve had blended raw leaf lemonade and never had any incident. But while doing research on my piece I did find some information regarding toxicity from reliable sources and we felt it was our duty to mention it in the piece. I am not a biologist but there could be different strands of the same plants…
      I may take you up on your offer, as I often go through Riverside going from Los Angeles to Desert Hot Springs and it would be nice to get a few leaves. Loved them with tomatoes and eggs in the morning, but with cream they really are the best!

    • Rod Wivell 8·18·17

      Thanks for the offer I found Chaya in the Philippines and shared it with family and friends they are now growing some to share unfortunately my plants died from the cold weather in Oregon if you would send some to me I will bring it indoors before it gets cold thanks Rod

  • Philip Sinsheimer 7·13·15

    Thank you Alondra for your chaya story and offering to share some of your leaves! I’ve checked with a Mexican friend from Merida Yucatan and he says the leaves are just washed in a lot of water without using vinegar nor parboiling.
    Without any food safety consideration, I have to say I love cooked chaya leaves as a great alternative to spinach.
    Makes me feel like hopping on a train to go to Merida right now!
    Philip

  • Cecilia 7·26·15

    Hello I am from Washington and I’ve been looking for a small plant or just the leaves how could I get one?

    • Philip Sinsheimer 7·27·15

      Cecilia, please read Alondra’s post offering to send some of her treasure!
      “Anywhoooo we have a huge tree of it if anyone wants some feel free to email me and we can work something out so you can come get some or something :)”

  • Philip Sinsheimer 7·27·15

    Oh and also you can contact the restaurant I mention at the end of the piece:
    http://www.chichenitzarestaurant.com/home
    they may be able to send a plant?
    Philip Sinsheimer

  • Christine G. 8·23·15

    I just ordered 4 chaya seedlings from ebay and am excited to have them growing in my garden. Can anyone advise me on how to soak the leaves in water & vinegar? How many parts vinegar to water? How long? Thank you!!

  • Henry Yarborough 8·30·15

    There are some varieties of Chaya w/ relatively low levels of hydrocyanic glycosides. The person I got my first cuttings from tried to eat enough raw leaf to experience the initial symptoms of cyanide poisoning, and was physically unable to eat enough at one sitting. I still recommend cooking it, but I occasionally eat it raw also. Freezing the older leaves after cooking tenderizes it. I just ate some raw powdered leaves mixed w/ grits and eggs. Chaya is so bland that you can use it w/ about anything. A little sweetener is nice w/ it also. It makes a huge amount of leaf. I’ve started drying it for long term storage.

  • steve 9·9·15

    great story

  • Philip Sinsheimer 9·9·15

    Thanks Steve!

  • jesus 10·12·15

    Its hard to get it but I have plants in San Jose. Its a marvelous plant.

  • Ronnie 10·21·15

    I actually have know about this plant for over 25 years but now that I turned 40 I am just getting into eating it mainly because I want my mom too Type 2 Diabetes. My Father is the one who used to make a blended water of it when I was a teen and he always tried to get me to drink it but of course I wouldn’t at that age. I never remember seeing him cook it only washing it well with running water . I ate it raw now 2 days in a row but only a large leaf each day so gonna do more research on its toxicity before I continue to eat it raw. Lol. Hope to be alive and kicking to read more posts. Hee Hee. Thanks for sharing your stories keep it going. 🙂

    • Philip Sinsheimer 10·22·15

      Hello Ronnie and thanks for your comment.
      My most recent sources in Yucatan say that, like your father, they only clean the leaves under running water. The toxicity level probably varies from one specie to the other. One leaf at a time seems a prudent way to go… 😉

  • Richard T. 11·10·15

    My experience with the Chaya plant is as follows , I have a 15 foot tall plant that got knocked down by a wind storm I cut it in pieces for the green recycle , then that night my eyes itched and itched , next day same,. after 2 days the itching got away , I must have rubbed my eyes at least 50+ times. I do cook chaya ocassionally great flavor , my “pruned “chaya is still standing ,I wonder if anybody has had any itching handling chaya ( I wore nylon gloves ,and this was the 2nd. time it happened )

    • Henry Yarborough 11·10·15

      Never had a reaction, but I understand that some people have a reaction to the latex.

    • Aggie 6·28·17

      I love chaya. I started using it around two years ago. ….because people said it’s very good health benefit. So I sometimes would eat it raw. I thought it was a healthy plant, didn’t know it was toxicity, but I got itching so I stopped. Good to hear so many different sharing.
      Thanks

  • Agnes Rapau 12·6·15

    Dear all, can I dry chaya Leaves ànd powder it for me to eat, or make juice out of it, I mean when it is dried

  • PHILIP SINSHEIMER 12·7·15

    Good question Agnes… But I personally don’t have an answer. It is not done in Yucatan, which doesn’t mean it cannot be done elsewhere. I just don’t know how much of the nutritional benefits would survive from desiccation.

    • Agnes Rapau 12·18·15

      Thanks very much for the answer

  • Rod 1·9·16

    I was introduced to Chinese spinach tree, ‘Chaya’ when I lived in Hawaii 25 years ago, where I took 8′ long branches from a friend and stuck each about 10″ deep in the soil. they wilted of course but the daily rains kept them moist and in a few days the leaves began to firm back up. I not only had the plant but also had shade for my rabbits. I use the young tender leaves for cooking and make tea with the older leaves and I break off the youngest shoots and cook them. They taste like asparagus.
    I found a person in Florida that sells 8″ branches so I ordered some. I live in Oregon where it freezes once in a while and have left the starts in potting soil on the porch close to the house. I covered them with a large plastic soda bottle to protect them. this was 2 weeks ago and even with the freeze they seem to be doing fine since I see new leaves growing. I look forward to making this a main part of my diet since they are also known for their protein. I also will be introducing to family in the Philippines since it seems they aren’t aware of it. I hope others that have this plant reads this and makes his excess plant stems available to others. I paid $6 for 4 stems and was glad to do so.

  • Agnes Rapau 1·14·16

    I really like planting chaya plants in South Africa, one of my friend gave me three branches to cut and plant in November 2015, I cutted up to 30 Pieces, I am now having 10 trees with Leaves and still looking forward to have more, I really like planting Herbs

  • Steven Hosmann 5·31·16

    I have been growing Chaya in Corpus Christi, TX for a few years now and have 50 or so trees. They are very easy to propagate I break a few branches off and stick them in the ground and they all grow. They will even root if laid on the ground. I only use them for tea not as spinach, but it does seem to pick me up when not feeling well. I have the non thorn variety and would be happy to give starts to anyone looking for these plants. I didn’t realize they are hard to come by, seems like they would be all over the place. I would also add for those eating them raw cyanide can’t be processed by the body and is stored until it hits a critical level at which time death usually follows. So just because it doesn’t make you sick it is still doing damage and building in your system. I would highly recommend cooking them always, I haven’t seen any research that shows concentration levels so its hard to say if you could get to a high enough level to do any real damage but why risk it.

    • Philip Sinsheimer 5·31·16

      Thanks Steven for this valuable information!!!

    • Marco A. Palma 7·24·17

      Would you be willing to sell your Chaya leaves on an ongoing basis? I live in Los Angeles.

  • Isidro lopez 8·14·16

    Hey steven, I have who lives in corpus who swears on the the plant, how can he get a hold of you. You can also call me 832-535-6699. Ask for Isidro . Thanks

  • Peter Krywyn 1·2·17

    Hi I’m trying to grow chaya or spinach tree here in Canada and was wondering, where and how to buy seeds or shoots? At this time of year the shipping must be hard. But I’ll gladly pay. I’m not a botanist, just some one that grows herb, weeds, and other powerful plats that do not necessarily grow here. You can reach me at
    (403)-934-6897
    Thank you for your time. Peter.

  • PHILIP SINSHEIMER 1·3·17

    Hello Peter
    Sorry, but I have no clue how you would get seeds to Canada and more over if it would grow under your climate as it is a tropical plant. I’ve only heard of it sold as shoots. You could try contacting Chichen Itza restaurant in Los Angeles: +1 213-741-1075
    Or simply plan a trip to Yucatan!

  • Tammy T 4·4·17

    Do you think I could grow it in southern Iowa.
    Would like to use it to keep diabetes away and to help with obesity issues, immunity issues.
    Thank you

  • Stella 4·11·17

    If anyone still looking for Chaya, Amazon has a few sellers. I just place an order and can’t wait to get my own Chaya this summer. I live in Chicago and the weather is not ideal for this tree, but I am planning to use the large pot for the Chaya and let it stay outside during the summer and bring it indoor during the winter. to use the large pot to grow

  • Kevin 7·3·17

    Is it safe to cook in a non-stick pot which I am assuming is aluminum or is the toxic nature of the fumes/vAPORs only in a bare aluminum pan/pot? How is everyone cooking these? I didn’t know everyone still used cast iron or stainless steel pots. Are these the only types of pots suitable to cook chaya leaves in safely?

  • gobena daniel alemu 7·24·17

    Guys i have short experience with this amazing plant chaya.
    some one told me that there plant which is knows chaya some where in adama ethiopia and i had gone there and see what it looks like as well as i spent with people how had an experience with it.
    amazingly i have got two peoples how had consuming this plant for seven year and above.
    i took around 500 stems to another place to plant and leaves to laboratory to study the toxic level and all content in it. by the way chaya is ever green plant and little drought tolerant.

POST A COMMENT