Also known as the “spinach tree”, chaya is an evergreen plant that is native to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. For several centuries this was the staple food of the Mayas, who had named it Chay.
A member of the Euphorbiaceae family, chaya is similar to hibiscus or cassava plants. Its leaves are long and wrinkled and the flowers are white. They resemble the leaves of cabbage but they cannot be eaten raw. Some varieties have short, stinging hairs that can require the use of gloves for harvesting, but these disappear when the product is cooked.
Chaya grows in hot, humid and bright climates, and can reach heights of six meters tall, though it is usually about two. This plant is also quite resistant to insects, abundant rains and drought.
Chaya leaves are traditionally prepared by immersing them in boiling water for 20 minutes, and then eaten with oil or butter. Maize and pumpkin seeds can be added, or the leaves can be used to prepare tamal, a traditional Mesoamerican dish. The chaya leaves are eaten with soups, broths, rice or eggs. They are also used to prepare tortillas, empanadas, omelettes and cream or various traditional dishes from the region, like Dzotobichay or Tobil Chay Ts’o, a tamal filled with egg, pumpkin seed sauce and tomatoes.
Families in the rural communities or Quintana Roo prepare chaya tortillas for special occasions and some religious holidays, including hetzmek, a baptism ritual named for the way in which the baby is held against the godparent’s left side.
Some studies suggest that chaya contains more nutritional substances than spinach. It’s a good source of protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and various minerals and enzymes that are beneficial for the body. Chaya helps regulate blood pressure, improves circulation, is useful for digestion and disinfection and reduces cholesterol levels. For all of these reasons the plant is used for its medicinal purposes.