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Indigenous Eating: Chilacayote

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cheel-a-ka-YO-teh

Indigenous Species: Curcubita ficifolia

The genus Curcubita includes the edible-skinned summer squash, the pumpkins, and gourds. All are indigenous to the New World. The name of this particular variety is derived from the Nahuatl word: Tzilacayotli, and while its actual location of origin is not known to a certainty, the names it is called by in other parts of  Central and South America are clearly derived from this word, so  its origin is credited to Mexico.

Nutritionally, this species differs from other hard squash, like pumpkins; low in beta-carotene (the flesh is very pale yellow in color) and relatively high in carbohydrates. It does have a unique value, however, in that it is high in a substance called D-Chiro-Inositol. This is used successfully in Asia to treat diabetes and also sold in supplement form for treating Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in women. There is a scourge of diabetes in Mexico but the preferred preparation, dulce, boiled in a sugar syrup until candied, likely cancels out any effectiveness of this substance.

In Mexico, a fervently devout Catholic country, food and religious ritual are inseparable. The fruits of the land are presented as offerings or shared communally on saints’ days and other Holy days. The Chilacayote has its place of honor on Viernes de Dolores.

On the Friday before Palm Sunday, Mexicans honor the Virgin Mother’s suffering in the knowledge her Son would be soon put to death. If you are a practicing Catholic, and are wondering why you have never heard about this day, “Viernes de Dolores” – translated literally as Friday of Pain – was declared  by Vatican II as redundant to the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, marked on September 15. But in countries like Mexico, where the Virgin Mother is so deeply revered, the Holy See looked the other way (so to speak), and the feast day carries on.

Chilacayote Squash flowerThe mottled pattern on the skin of the Chilacayote (and the leaves of the plant), I am told, symbolizes the falling tears of the Virgin Mary as they splashed to the ground. Dulce de Chilacayote is traditionally handed out to visitors of the altars that are set up to revere the Virgin Mother.

To prepare the squash a dulce, it is cut into pieces and boiled in a syrup of piloncillo and spices like canela, anise and cloves. Now,the mature squash has a very hard rind, I have discovered. Cutting into it is a dangerous production, and it’s been recommended to me that I use a machete, which, quite frankly, I find terrifying.  Another solution is to drop it from a height or fling it onto hard ground, which, while less controlled, is obviously less risky.

The inside is a pale yellow, with many dark flat seeds, similar to, but larger than that of a watermelon. These are used like other squash seeds and are rich in healthy oils.

An economy of labour is evident in many traditional foods that you will find sold in the mercados. Generally “hecho a mano” (made by hand) means some processes, like painstakingly picking out seed after seed, are deemed not worth the fuss and bother so in this case, the large dark brown seeds are often left in the candy. The result is an authenticity of product– its natural origin not obscured.

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 Coming soon, I will prepare my own chilacayote dulce and will post more photos (will I drop, or machete the thing into pieces…) as well as the recipe I use. 

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The Cook, the Table and the Farmer

Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. The cook stands in the middle. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.

~Phrang Roy

Article in full, here. “Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull

detemporada-farm-restaurant
De Temporada Farm Restaurant just outside San Miguel de Allende
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Meet Mesquite

mesquite-tree
This is a often bent, twisted scrubby tree that grows readily alongside cactus in the desert areas of the southern US and through Mexico. The leaves are frond-like and after the rainy season its pods drip from the branches.

I can hear it now– the deep voice with a Texas accent, enticing us…

 

“Come on out and taste our delicious ‘Mesquite-grilled’ burgers…”

‘What the heck’s this mess-keet?’ those of us from anywhere north of Texas wondered, as the image of a sizzling beef patty on a fire-licked grill beckoned to us on the TV screen causing even the most earnest vegetarian to salivate before looking away in shame.  And while the backyard grilling craze hadn’t yet swept North America, it was about to start.

 

Mesquite-wood-chips

If you’re a grill-queen or king you may, by now, have used mesquite charcoal, boards, or chips for grilling and smoking meat. A good grilling supply, gourmet shop, or even  a butcher  may well stock it. Mesquite wood chips are the best way to get a long lasting burn and they infuse a distinctive flavor into meats, particularly delicious with beef. A little can be added to standard coals–its assertive flavor goes a long way.

 

Not only is the wood of culinary interest– vegans and gluten-free folks will be interested in the seed pods

Mesquite pods must first be dehydrated before grinding them into powder

Nutritional Value at a glance

High in protein (11–17%)
Rich in: Lysine, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron,  Zinc, Dietary fiber
Effective in balancing blood sugar.

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The mesquite tree produces large bean pods– its seeds, of course. The indigenous people of the Americas, did not overlook seed pods as  a food source –the mesquite was one of many.  Traditionally, the pods were dried in the sun and they were then ground into a powder to be used as a flour,  a sweetener, mixed with water for a sweet beverage, like horchata, or fermented into an alcoholic drink.

Mesquite Chocolate Chip CookiesNaturally sweet…

The ground product has a molasses-like flavor with a hint of caramel. It’s sometimes sold as flour, powder or meal but the product is equivalent. Try it out in baked goods, though use no more than 1/3 as a substitute for flour. It’s highly absorbent of liquid so used alone, it will create an impossibly crumbly product. It is sweet, so try it in tea (very nice prepared with Chai spices), coffee or smoothies, sprinkled onto yogurt, blended into energy bars, and fruit/nut butter spreads.

Click here for a recipe for Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Interestingly, mesquite is highly effective in balancing blood sugar. It has a glycemic index of 25 (whole wheat, for example, is 30, and beans/legumes hover  around 30)- and a high percentage (25%) of dietary fiber, so it digests more slowly than many grains – this prevents highs and lows in blood sugar. For thousands of years, Native Americans in the Southwest and Mexico relied on mesquite as a food staple and, not surprisingly, given the paleo diet, there was no such thing as diabetes. But as native foods were replaced with a more modern diet,  the health patterns  took a downward change. The benefits of reviving the use of foods like mesquite– a slow and whole foods diet in general– has  far-reaching potential.

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When mesquite pods are harvested in arid rural areas, not only does it offer its nutritional value, the product has deeper social and ecological value. Maintaining  trees as sustainable agriculture rather than cutting them for lumber, charcoal production, or other reasons has many benefits to the health of the land and provides an economic resource for rural communities.

 

 

References and Sources

Mesquite Smoking Chips for grills- Amazon

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Yaca, the Aphrodisiac

images-2Yaca (also spelled Yaka), or Jackfruit, is bizarre-looking, a pain in the arse to cut up and eat, and comes in a rather peculiar bumpy prehistoric-looking package that can weigh up to 15-40 Kilos! 

 

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While the one I handled was at the smaller end of that scale, it was still the weight of a two-year old child. And only about 40% of it is edible (unlike 2-year old children)– the remaining 60% accounts for its large seeds and a sticky latex network of membrane that holds all the bits together.

It’s native to Southeast Asia, not Mexico, but grows well in tropical lowlands,and has been naturalized in Mexico. The one I had was brought to me from Puerto Vallarta. It’s also known as Breadfruit, but for entertainment value, inspire and excite your guests by announcing its extra special ingredient, Sildenafil – the active ingredient in Viagra.

 

The flavor is tropical… tutti-frutti, you might say. Pineapple, banana, mango, and Yaca-cutlightly lemony.

The texture is starchy and fibrous. When cutting it, after my own experience, I highly recommend you oil everything that comes in contact with its insides, including yourself, as the latex gums everything up. I was not so wise and wound up with my fingers stuck together most impossibly.  Already you’re wondering if this is going to be worth the trouble…

Once it’s cut open you find, lined up along that central sticky core, pale golden yellow fleshy capsules each containing a large seed. To eat it, you must carefully pull each of these away from the core, once again to avoid the oozing latex. It is, as mentioned, an effort

images-3And while it’s not a juicy treat– the texture is more reminiscent of something that might bounce– it does have a pleasant flavor and it’s interesting to eat, especially if you are into process. And,well, if you get your fella to eat enough of it (I have not been able to find any information about exactly how much that might have to be) you might discover those secondary benefits…

Please– do let us know.

http://www.amazon.com/Aroy-D-Young-Green-Jackfruit-Brine/dp/B005QBCT4S

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Saffron is special, but Turmeric is amazing

Curcuma_longa_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-199

‘Azafran’, as far as I have been able to ascertain,refers in Mexico

to various ingredients used to give foods –especially rice dishes like Paella – the signature bright yellow-orange color of saffron. Actual saffron, Crocus sativus, is, in fact, one of the most expensive spices in the world. Depending on the variety of crocus it is harvested from–as well as other factors that measure its quality– it can sell for anywhere from $1000- $5000 USD per pound. Sure, a pound goes a long way, but it’s hard to find a small quantity for under $20 in US gourmet shops and  I don’t know about you, but this is more luxury than I can usually justify. Turns out turmeric is good for the colour, complex flavor, and even more.

turmeric-rootI was fingering some of these pinky finger-sized tubers in a local tienda, noting the lines circumscribing them and the brilliant orange flesh that was revealed when I scratched at the skin, The hand lettered sign in the basket read: ‘Azafrán’. It looked, to me, a little like ginger.

I bought a few, scraped off the skin and had a nibble. I recognized the flavor immediately as turmeric. The actual name for turmeric in Spanish is curcuma, (Latin: Curcuma longa )but in Mexico, as it is used as a replacement for saffron, it’s commonly known as azafrán.

I love Indian food, and a perk of living in a large expat community is there is greater demand for imported foods than in most towns of the same size in Mexico. The same shop I was in sold Basmati Rice (mind you, it cost a fortune), so I was thrilled to be able to prepare a semi-authentic Biryani that night…

With a supply of turmeric readily available, I became curious about its food value…

turmericpowder

I  was familiar with the bright yellow powdered spice and have golden stains on my apron to prove it. In India, it’s consumed daily by most people, usually as the fresh root. There, its powerful medicinal values are well known. In cold countries, it’s just not readily available fresh, so powdered is most familiar. However, it seems the “jury” is out on the benefits of fresh vs. dried, or whether it needs to be heated for full benefit. (If anyone finds clear evidence, please add a comment below as I would love to know.)

So here’s what I found (I left out the possible benefits in treating cancer and Alzheimers as the research is as yet inconclusive)…

  • Alterative (restores health), analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-allergic, antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, appetizer, astringent, cardiovascular, carminative (anti-gas!), digestive, diuretic, stimulant, and vulnerary (heals wounds).
  • Aids medicinally in healing ulcers, parasitic infections, various skin disorders, strains, bruises, joints inflammation (osteo- and rhumatoid arthritis) , cold and flu symptoms.
  • Internal antiseptic and antidote to blood poisoning.
  • Protects skin from pollution and bacteria and thus discourages wrinkles… Yay!
  • Aids in the body’s resistance against allergies in the throat, nose and bronchial

Recently, I used it myself to avoid taking antibiotics after oral surgery, both taking it as a supplement and using it topically on the wound.

How to use it:

turmeric-capsules

if you can get the fresh root ( you can order it from AMAZON) slice it up and add it to rice, or carrot soup, or other dishes where its slightly pungent carrot-y flavor will lend itself.

I like to add it to my green smoothie. Scrape one small root, about 2″ in length, and slice it up to add it to your favorite combination in the blender.

Take it as a supplement. The dosage will depend on your condition… Generally, I hear about 2,000-3,000mg/day divided over 2 or 3 doses. Click here to read what Dr. Weil has to say about turmeric.

You can buy turmeric powder anywhere spices are sold. As always, look for the freshest  possible option. The actual fresh root can be ordered by mail as can the powder packaged into capsules to use as a supplement. Always, before taking any supplements check with your health practitioner for contraindications. Turmeric, for example exacerbates the activity of blood thinners.

One of the few things turmeric is not indicated for is making you smarter… but given what it does do, seems you might just be smarter to have it around for the many other benefits it offers.

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