Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Sechium edule

also known as the custard marrow, chow-chow, alligator pear,  sayote, vegetable pear, mirliton, chistophone.

By Scott Sheu

The chayote is popular member of the gourd family that is eaten throughout the world, though it is not as well known in the United States.  Though there are many different varieties of chayotes, the most commonly found is pear-shaped and pale green.

Origins and Distribution

The chayote originated in Central America, where it was cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans.  It's common name, which is Spanish, derives from the Nahuatl name chayotl.  European explorers spread the plant to the Caribbean, South America, and Europe.  Eventually, it was also introduced to Africa, Asia, and Australia.  The plant now plays a part in cuisines and cultures throughout the world.

Because it originated in Mesoamerica, chayote plants grow best in semi-tropical climates though it has been adapted to a number of growing conditions in warmer climates.  The largest source of chayote continues to be Central America, including Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. 

Botanical Description

Like other members of the Curcurbitaceae family, the chayote grows on a perennial vine, whose growth can sometimes be so aggressive in tropical areas as to be considered invasive as has been the case in Hawaii (Mahr).  They are grown on the ground or on trellises, can grow up to 30 ft long, and are slender and green with many clinging tendrils.  The tendrils produce flowers that are greenish-white to white (Saade).  It has tuberous roots and larger, roughly textured leaves.  The plants typically yield 25 to 100 fruits and are harvested September through May.

The chayote fruit comes in a variety of guises; there are many varieties with different colored skin, sizes, and shapes.  Some have prickles on the skin though the majority sold commercially are pear-shaped, wrinkled, and have a smooth, pale green skin.  The flesh of the chayote is white and contains a soft seed in its center, which can be eaten with the rest of the fruit even though it is usually discarded.

Culinary Usage

For both the Aztecs and the Mayans, the chayote was a staple food.  The Mayans especially savored the flowering tendrils and roots of the plant. 

The chayote fruit nowadays is usually treated as a vegetable and predominantly served in savory dishes.  It has a firm, crisp texture and a somewhat bland taste that has been described as similar to a potato, cucumber or apple.  It is often prepared like a root vegetable or a summer squash.  When eaten raw, chayotes are commonly served in salads or salsas.  When cooked, the versatile fruit can be served an innumerable amount of ways, including deep fried, baked, stewed, in casseroles, or stuffed as the French prepare it.  Its relatively weak taste makes the chayote a natural accompaniment to strong spicing and flavors.

More rarely, the chayote fruit can be used in sweet dishes.  This is most common in Latin America, where it is prepared similarly to a pumpkin and made into pies.  The fruit is also used for preserves.

Other parts of the plant can be consumed as well.  The roots (called “chinchayote” in Mexico) are usually prepared like a potato.  The leaves are cooked like spinach, the shoots can be treated like green asparagus tips and can be cooked accordingly in dishes such as stir-fries and salads (Mahr).

Other Usages

The chayote fruit is a good source of vitamin C and amino acids, though its carbohydrate and calorie content are particularly high.

The leaves are used for medicinal purposes, such as treating kidney diseases in colonial South America (Saade).  They are also extremely beneficial to the cardiovascular system and are brewed into a tea to treat symptoms such as hypertension.  The fruit, on the other hand, is utilized as a method of urine retention while the pulp is sometimes used to sooth rashes (Saade).



Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Marh, Susan.  “Chayote, Sechium edule”.  Wisconsin Master Gardener Program. University of Wisconsin.  Web.  <>.

Nee, Michael.  “The Domestication of Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae)”.  Economic Botany 44.3 (1990).  Web. <>.

Saade, R. Lira.  "Chayote." NewCROP. Purdue University, Mar. 1999. Web. <>.