Opinion | Chowing down on a lesser loved squash
The modest pricing and neutral flavours of the chayote squash lends it great versatility
I am a big advocate of “eat your vegetables"—be it through my blog, my book, or when counselling people for a healthier lifestyle. However, I must admit that some vegetables are difficult to love. Take, for instance, the chow chow or chayote squash. This pear-like vegetable from the squash family is called Bangalore kathrikkai (brinjal) or seemai kathrikkai (foreign brinjal) in Tamil. The latter name refers to the foreign origin of this vegetable, which reached different parts of the world through the Columbian exchange whereby humans, plants and culture were introduced from the Americas to the rest of the world.
The outer surface of the squash is light green with a few folds, while the inside is a paler green with a flattish seed. When tender, the chayote squash can be easily cooked without peeling the skin.
This vegetable has a few characteristics that work against it. The first thing that could put you off is the appearance, which is a bit like Shrek’s fist. The second is the sticky-slimy sap it exudes when chopped. However, its redeeming features are its modest pricing and neutral flavours that allow it to fit into any dish. This possibly explains Tamil cuisine’s long-standing love affair with this vegetable. By way of chutneys, sambhar, kootu (vegetables and lentils in a curry base), poriyal (dry curry) and so on, chow chow can surreptitiously sneak into your daily menu with ease, evoking horror in those who hate the vegetable.
Although I’m not a big fan of the vegetable, there is one dish that I absolutely love. It is the Tamilian chutney called thogayal, eaten with steamed rice and gingelly oil. The fried red chillies and urad dal, ground along with sautéed slices of chow chow and coconut, make the most delectable chutney. If you follow the don’t ask-don’t-tell approach to feeding your family, this simple dish is bound to be a winner.
All Indian dishes use chow chow in its cooked form. Given the vegetable’s origins in Mexico, using it in a salsa is not a totally outlandish idea. The squash needs to be tender for you to be able to eat it raw or the flesh can be tough and fibrous. Finely chopped tender chayote squash generously doused in lime juice and tossed with chopped chillies and tomatoes makes for a tasty salsa.
A few years ago, there was a rumour floating around that McDonald’s in Australia used chayote squash with apple flavouring in their apple pies. This rumour was immediately quashed but it nonetheless revealed that the vegetable can work as a pretty good extender to other fruits and vegetables because of its near non-existent flavour. Combine it with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and it could well star in your next pie or crumble.
Just a couple of weeks ago, our weekly vegetable delivery van was selling farm-fresh chow chow and despite my indifference to the vegetable, I ended up buying quite a few of them.
When tender, thinly sliced chow chow steam-cooks in less than 5 minutes. The dry preparation I made had a simple Tamil-style tempering and was ready in 15 minutes without any hacks.
With the remaining chow chow, I (accidentally) created this sublime chutney. The original plan was to make a tomato chutney but I realized that I was a few tomatoes short. This versatile veggie came to the rescue and a smidgen of tamarind paste provided the necessary tanginess.
Chow chow tomato chutney
2 tsp oil
3 dried red chillies
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
2-3 medium sized tomatoes, chopped
1 chayote squash, peeled and sliced thin
3/4 tsp salt
1/2-1 tsp tamarind paste
1/2cup grated coconut
For the tempering
1 tsp oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
A few curry leaves
Heat the oil in a sauté pan. Fry the chillies until they turn a bright shade of red. Sauté the garlic for 30 seconds.
Add the sliced onions, tomatoes and chayote squash and fry on high heat for 3-4 minutes. Season with salt, stir to combine well. Cover and cook on a low flame till the vegetables are done. Transfer to a dish and cool for 10-15 minutes.
In a mixer jar, combine the tamarind paste, coconut and the prepared vegetable mix. Grind to a smooth chutney. Put this in a serving bowl.
Heat oil for tempering in a small kadhai. Fry mustard seeds and curry leaves until the seeds start to splutter. Pour this over the chutney. Serve with idlis or dosa.
Chow chow poriyal
2 chayote squash (medium sized, tender variety)
1 tbsp coconut oil
2 dried red chillies
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
2 tsp urad dal
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp grated coconut
Peel and chop the chayote squash into thin slices and then into smaller pieces. Discard the seed portion.
Heat coconut oil in a pan. Fry the chillies for a few seconds, then add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and urad dal. Once the seeds splutter and the dal turns golden brown, add the squash. Stir continuously on a high flame for 1-2 minutes. Season with salt, cover and cook over low flame for 5-6 minutes, until the vegetable is cooked through. Transfer to a bowl, garnish with coconut and serve with rasam/sambhar and rice.
If the squash is not tender, steam-cook the chopped vegetable and then combine with the tempering.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.
She tweets at @saffrontrail