Why have I allowed an invasive native of the Yucatan peninsula into my kitchen? The immediate answer is the thunderstorm outside. It’s freaking out our chihuahua (fellow Mexican), who is cowering in a corner, while I’m equally frightened our new Chaya plant (also known as Tree Spinach) will be devastated if left out in the deluge in its flimsy pot.
When it hits maturity as a 12ft tall rival to Japanese knotweed the Chaya will hold its own but, as a stripling freshly arrived from a Lincolnshire herb nursery, we’re giving it shelter. And that kind act is causing ructions all of its own. Because I have briefed the rest of the household on the pluses and minuses of harbouring such a nutritious plant.
So already I’ve slipped in its major selling point. Chaya has high levels of protein, calcium and iron, while the leaves are also crammed with carotene, potassium and vitamin C, putting normal spinach or Chinese cabbage in the shade. Superfood status? This is a hype-free zone.
All this nutritional benefit is for the future, of course, when my plant grows enough foliage to cook with.
You could just juice it or, like our spinach, stew it in butter, one minute minimum. I’ll start with legendary food writer Diana Kennedy’s Tamales de Chaya and then proceed to Grilled Coronado Fillets with Piña and Chaya from Eric Werner and Mia Henry’s Hartwood restaurant between the jungle and the sea in the hippest stretch of Yucatan (if you can’t get there their cookbook is highly recommended).
Culinary bucket list logged but let’s first fit in the downside, which is causing some domestic consternation. As a major convert to indigenous Mexican regional cuisine during lockdown I hunt down authentic ingredients zealously, but some do come with a health warning. Not all the insects surprisingly. Cue Chaya. When mature, the leaves can be tough with microscopic stinging hairs, which can irritate the skin for days, so handle with latex gloves when cleaning. Unless very young, best not to eat it raw since, like spinach or almonds, it contains a toxic compound, a form of hydrogen cyanide. That’s easily sorted, I’m telling my wary nearest and dearest, simply by boiling, frying or drying the leaves.
I will be charting my progress – in the garden and the kitchen – with this vigorous perennial, which I’ve been slow to catch on to. A decade ago Guardian gardening correspondent Alys Fowler vividly described the beauty of the Tree Spinach Chenopodium giganteum or Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter in her garden: “The tree spinach is a brilliant bright green with each new set of leaves blushed a shocking magenta.”
Attractive, but Alys warns: “It will reappear everywhere. It is not exactly a thug, but if you’re not prepared to eat it, that’s an awful lot of weeding. If you sow it as seed, consider sowing it in modules or seed trays and planting it out as this will give you more control as to where to grow it. If you want full-height plants, it needs to go at the back of the border.”
Maybe it needs a WALL.
TOP FOODIE DOCUMENTARY TIP
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy (available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49) tracks the now 98-year-old expat Brit to her lair deep in the Mexican forests. This fiery, formidable cookery writer is the foremost champion of authentic Mexican cuisine and Elizabeth Carroll’s inspiring warts and all profile does her proud.