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Chilacayote is a unique squash variety. It grows on long vines that can reach up to 15 meters in length and has leaves that look like the leaves of a fig tree (hence the nickname Fig gourd). One vine is able to produce up to 50 large fruits. Chilacayote squash is elongated and uniformly round, with the size and look of a watermelon. Fully mature fruit can weigh up to 14 pounds each. The rind is green and speckled allover with creamy white spots with occasional streaks running down the length of the fruit. Young, small Chilacayote squash is entirely edible, the skin, flesh and seeds. When the squash matures, the rind becomes very hard and inedible. The tough rind acts as a protective shell for the Chilacayote squash, which increases its storage potential tremendously. The inner flesh is a bright white or cream color and has a texture similar to Chilacayote is the only species of Cucurbita with black seeds (a white seeded variety also exists). The seeds are flat and shaped like watermelon seeds, but larger. Chilacayote itself has a rather bland taste, however, it will absorb the flavors of other ingredients.
Chilacayote squash is available in the late winter and spring months.
Chilacayote (pronounced cheel-a-ka-YO-teh) is a variety of squash, botanically classified as Cucurbita ficifolia. Its appearance is very misleading, as one may mistake it for a spotted watermelon versus a squash. The confusing appearance may also be responsible for the many different names this member of the Cucurbitaceae family goes by. It is called the Seven Year melon for its amazing storage potential or Malabar gourd. In the United States, it is more commonly known as the Figleaf gourd (or Fig Leaf squash) for its fig leaf-shaped vine leaves, and its genus name which is Latin for ‘fig leaf’. The name Chilacayote comes from the Nahuatl word “Tzilacayotli,” as do several other variations of the name throughout Latin America. Many believe this places the origin of the squash in the ancient Aztec region of Central Mexico.
Chilacayote, unlike other hard squash varieties, is low in beta-carotene as reflected in its pale flesh. The seeds of the melon-like squash are high in protein, which is likely why they are included in many of the fruit’s applications. The winter squash is high in a unique nutrient sometimes referred to as vitamin B8, called D-chiro Inositol. This nutrient is used as a natural antihyperglycaemic, or insulin mediator, for diabetics. The so-called vitamin B8 is also used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome.
Chilacayote squash can be used when immature, when the rind is still soft and easier to work with. When young, the squash can be cooked like zucchini, whether sliced and sautéed or stuffed after boiling or roasting to soften. When Chilacayote is fully mature, the rind is very hard and must be hacked off with a knife. The mature Chilacayote is most often used to make a popular Central American confection called ‘dulce de chilacayote.’ The rind is removed and the fruit is cut in half, then quarters and finally into smaller wedge segments. The seeds are left in the flesh and the wedges are boiled for a long period of time in water along with piloncillo (an unrefined product made from boiled down sugar cane juice) and spices like anise and cinnamon. The wedges are left to cool and then dusted with powdered sugar and left overnight to dry. The Chilacayote wedges take on a candied look and a chewy texture. Chilacayote can be cut into pieces and boiled and the flesh removed like spaghetti squash. The stringy pulp (and sometimes the seeds as well) is cooked down with a good amount of sugar. The result is called cabello de angel, a popular Latin confection. Chilacayote is also used to make a beverage with pineapple, or sweetened milk. The seeds are sometimes roasted and eaten like peanuts. Mature Chilacayote squash can be stored in a cool, dry environment for several years (hence its nickname Seven Year melon). Even after years of storage, the flesh will remain fresh and may even get sweeter. The more tender, young Chilacayote can be stored for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
In Mexico, the Chilacayote is given as an offering to the Virgin Mary on Viernes de Delores, or the Friday of Sorrows. The Holy day is celebrated on the Friday before Palm Sunday. The squash is cut into large pieces and candied. The resulting “dulce de chilacayote” is handed out to visitors and revelers visiting the various altars set up for the Virgin Mother. In Southeast Asia, where the fruit was likely introduced by explorers and travelers from South America, the fruit is called Shark Fin melon. The squash is used as a substitute for shark fin in the popular Asian delicacy.
Chilacayote squash is thought to be native to Central Mexico based on the etymology of the many local names it has adopted over the centuries. The fruit is primarily grown in a region that stretches from Central Mexico and through Central America then along the highlands of the Andes and down to central Chile in South America. Outside of these regions, the unique melon can be found in home gardens and at farmer’s markets though small farms and growers. It has been found growing as far north in the Americas as Southern California and even in the chilly climates of Britain.