What is CHAYA?...It's the Mayan Spinach of Mesoamerica!
Mesoamerica is one of the most important world centers for the origin and domestication of plants.
Mesoamerica has contributed several divine crops to modern agriculture, including corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, cocoa, avocado and agave.
You can read about the history of corn and agave in previous posts; "TACOS…el alma y corazón de la comida Mexicana…y BURRITOS?" And, "Maguey…the Spiritual Plant of the Gods or the Devil’s Brew?"
Mesoamerican populations also cultivated and domesticated many other useful plants, which today are still not well known outside of this region or elsewhere in the world.
One of these plants is the "Chaya." Commonly known as Tree Spinach, Tread Softly, or Cabbage Star. Here at Purochisme, we like to call it by its formal name, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius.
Ok, pues, we'll just call it Mayan Spinach.
For people in rural communities across the Yucatan Peninsula it is quite common to consume this plant every day. Chaya is a domesticated leafy green vegetable of the Maya region of Guatemala, Belize, southeast Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, and parts of Honduras.
Though relatively unknown outside of this area, evidence suggests that Chaya was of significant importance to ancient peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Most varieties of chaya have stinging hairs that when in contact with human skin cause an irritation similar to that of stinging nettle. Oral traditions claim, that if you ask permission to take a leaf, the Chaya plant will honor a heartfelt request.
Try taking a leaf and rub your hand on the edge of the leaf.
You will feel a slight burning sensation that lasts maybe 10 minutes.
Then try asking permission first. De veras! Do it ese!
"Good morning Mrs. Chaya, may I steal from you a little leaf please?”
Y en español, “Buenos días Señora Chaya, ¿Le puedo robar una hojita por favor?” and the results are always the same, no stinging sensation. PuroChisme you say?
Not when you can let your heart speak, instead of your mind! Your garden will hear you and provide you an abundance of life giving bounty. If you genuinely believe that energy exists among all living things, then it is conceivable that energy easily moves between living things all the time. Energy that is good and bad!
PuroChisme always thanks our fruit trees and garden for blessing us with their bounty; aguacate, chiles, tomates, naranjas, uvas, jujubes, limon and mansana. When you share those gifts with others, the garden always knows and appreciates your efforts. But like an infant, you must be mindful to tend the soil and feed your garden so it will grow strong.
Once established leaves and pieces of tender and succulent stem can be harvested for cooking. The sap may cause skin irritation to some people. The first harvest may take place after 90 - 120 days.
Sixty percent or more of the leaves may be removed at harvest, with enough left for healthy new growth. Since most gardeners need only a few leaves at a time, one plant harvested on a continuous basis is adequate.
Poisonous Plant or Medicinal Herb?
First, a word of caution. Raw chaya leaves contain hydrocyanic acid. In other words, they are considered toxic. Cooking the leaves for at least 3-5 minutes, however, removes the toxins and makes chaya safe to eat. That said, chaya is considered safe in small portions, and is often consumed raw in natural juices. Finally, chaya should never be cooked or stored in aluminum foil as it can produce a toxic reaction.
Researchers say they have found no reports of acute or chronic effects attributed to the consumption of fresh or cooked Chaya leaves. Still, it is better to err on the safe side and cook them slowly to burn off any HC. No tengas miedo! You know you’ve probably put worse cosas in your body!
Cooking with Chaya Leaves
Chaya leaves are pretty bland, so it’s best to add them to soups, casseroles, spaghetti sauces, salsas, and salads without affecting the taste.
The chaya leafs absorb the flavors of the soup. The tiny, tender leafs can go in omelets or salads or be used as garnish.
The larger ones are best chopped and cooked long and slow. Likewise, chaya greens are frequently combined with other vegetables and/or meat in soups and stews.
Boiled chaya greens, covered with ground roasted pepita seeds (Cucurbita sp.), cooked tomato and chile (Capsicum sp.) are eaten as a sort of burrito in a corn tortilla.
Some people fry previously boiled chaya leaves and mix them with eggs, onions, and tomatoes, or cook the leaves on a hot clay pan (comal) and add them to salads.
A popular drink in the Yucatán peninsula is made by blending raw chaya leaves in sugar water with lemons, pineapple, and other fruits and sold to tourists as “Chayagra,” along with claims of heightened virility.
Chaya, compared to spinach, retains its texture somewhat and it's volume, so much less is required for a recipe. However, like spinach, it can be canned or frozen.
Serving Size: 1/2 cup (1OOg) fresh leaves
PuroChisme has reviewed much of the research on the chaya leaves and can only attest to personal opinion and generalized benefits from regular use. Consumption of the chaya aids in the following: Improved blood circulation, digestion, improved vision, dis-inflame veins and hemorrhoids, help lower cholesterol, help reduce weight, prevent coughs, augment calcium in the bones, de-congests and disinfects the lungs, replenishes iron in the blood, improve memory and brain function and combat arthritis and diabetes.
Chaya Tea – Use about five large chaya leaves (more if smaller). You can add a mint leaf or lemon grass for flavor. Chop and boil the chaya lightly for about 20 minutes in water. Turn off the flame and add the mint leaf or lemon grass and let it cool for 15 minutes. Add organic honey and a squeeze of lemon for tasste. Drink it throughout the day.
For a summertime organic tea try using 3-5 medium size leaves with whatever blend you favor.
Maybe, two bags of green or black tea with a cutting of yerba buena (mint) and the chaya leaves, “cooked” in a glass bottle.
Leave it in direct sunlight for a couple of hours. Add honey and a squeeze of lemon to taste and then refrigerate.
What do you get? Well, it is a tasty diuretic…so you’ll pee a lot!
But that side effect is a good sign that your liver and kidney is kept clean and lowers blood sugar in the body.
Lastly, be creative...Remember, regardless of how you prepare it, the rewards of Mayan ancestors will always be with you!
Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra and Alvaro Molina-Cruz. The Ethnobotany of Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius ssp. aconitifolius Breckon): A Nutritious Maya Vegetable. Economic Botany. Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 350-365