One of the Yucatan Peninsula's best-kept secrets comes in the form of an unobtrusive little plant known as chaya. It has been used throughout the region since ancient times and was known to the ancient Maya as chay. They believed that it possessed curative properties and acted as a powerful aphrodisiac,claims that are substantiated by modern research.
Officially dubbed Cnidoscolus Chayamansa,chaya is a leafy green vegetable that grows in the form of a shrub-like plant throughout the drier regions of the tropics. Also known as tree spinach,chaya col,kikilchay and chaykeken,it is most commonly found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and reaches heights of up to 8 feet. The dark green,fuzzy leaves are typically between six and eight inches across,while the overall structure of the plant is similar to a cassava or hibiscus. The leaves come forth in groups of three from thin branches and form cuplike shapes as they mature. Blooms are plentiful and found at the end of long flower stems,but they are typically quite tiny at less than 10 mm in length.
The ancient Maya cultivated chaya throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and revered the herb for its ability to cure illness. It is native to the region and was frequently discussed in the pages of European travel journals as a local food staple. In fact,the Maya offered chaya to the Spanish Conquistadores upon landing on the island of Cozumel.
It is possible to eat chaya raw in a salad,with a popular preparation using oil and vinegar for flavor,but it also functions well as a flavor-enhancer in Italian dishes like spaghetti. Interestingly,pureed chaya is also used quite commonly as an addition to citrus drinks,such as orange juice or lemonade. When cooking with chaya,it is advisable to first boil the leaves for around 10 minutes to remove the outer protective layer.
Nutritionally speaking,chaya packs a real punch,boasting more than twice the vitamins and antioxidants as spinach or alfalfa. According to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City,it is also an excellent source of calcium,iron and protein,working to improve blood circulation,reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol. In addition,chaya has been shown to help efforts at weight loss,reduce anemia,improve memory,aid digestion,combat arthritis,prevent bronchial distress and increase the amount of calcium that is present in the bones.