Have you ever heard of ‘Buddha’s hand melon’ (佛手瓜, foshougua)? Just in case you’re tempted, don’t confuse it with the Buddha’s hand (佛手, foshou) or fingered citron, a thick-rind citrus fruit resembling a many-fingered hand.
Actually belonging to the gourd family, the foshougua is common in stir-fries and looks like a wimpy, non-bitter version of bitter melon when sliced. It’s eaten sweet or savory, raw, steamed, stewed, stuffed, souffléd, boiled, breaded and fried—you name it. It’s pretty versatile. Even the mango-like seed in the middle of the potato-ish, cucumberish flesh can be eaten. Resembling a closed hand—hence the name—it has wrinkly, but smooth, pale green or white skin. Evidently, it’s also a diuretic with benefits for cardiovascular health.
Sounds amazing, right? Never heard of it?If you’re scratching your head right now. I’ll tell you a secret. I looked that all up online because, I didn’t know any of this. What I knew is that it’s called chayote, is native to Mexico and is a common part of Latin American cuisine. I stumbled across a version of the recipe below in Gourmet magazine long ago, and I started making and adapting it because I was proud that I knew what chayote was, and because it was a tasty way to eat quinoa. And, despite it being indigenous to Mexico, I’ve seen it in local vegetable markets as long as I’ve lived here, never quite understanding why it’s not only found in the imported product section.
What does chayote have to do with life as an expat in China, you ask? Not a lot, except for the ever-present struggle for local chefs and their regions’ different versions of the same ingredient. Chayote may be Buddha’s hand in China, but it’s got another name in Thailand, Brazil, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. The more that is known about the different ways various cultures eat it, the less clear it is whether it’s actually native to Mexico or somehow popped up worldwide simultaneously. It’s even called choko in Australia, where urban legend claims it’s what McDonald’s serves in apple pies.
What does chayote have to do with life as an expat in China, you ask?
By delving into the history and reach of ingredients, one embarks on an adventure in claiming, and it’s not always clear who actually staked the first claim on chayote. This is common with many ingredients; although we haven’t fought wars over the boasting benefits of who first grew, cooked or discovered chayote, some cultures are quite sensitive about their claims on foods. The Chinese hold many of these claims due to their long history—though it’s not clear to me, yet, whether they care this much about foshougua—but due to the ebb and flow of trade throughout the past few thousand years, it’s not always clear where some things originated.
From a historian’s point of view, this may be disconcerting, but in general, the debate about where food is from tends to come down to humorous interpretations of what they really are. Take tomatoes, for instance. I remember the disbelief I felt when I first learned that they’re a fruit. I grew up in a place where, although fruit and vegetables were separated into areas of a produce section, there wasn’t a strict divide that you’d find in countries—like China—that commonly have separate vegetable and fruit markets. It now makes much more sense to me to find cherry tomatoes in fruit shops here and larger globe tomatoes in places where vegetables are sold.
Similarly, the use of similar common words for totally different things can be confusing. Be careful of how your dictionary translates spinach into Chinese because you may actually be asking for Chinese water spinach, also called Chinese watercress, a green leafy vegetable that resembles neither spinach nor watercress. In English, we use the term jujube to mean both a type of candy as well as a Chinese red date, but that may not get you far in China, where most translate 红枣 (hongzao) into date, despite the fact that you may insist a date is a sweet fruit from the Mediterranean region.
The variations among languages and cultures of names and interpretations of food are to be expected—after all, we all eat it, and have been for a very, very long time. You might be surprised, though, to learn that one culture has its own version of something rather than having only borrowed it from elsewhere. I was surprised to find chayote in a local market instead of the imported produce section, but a little research puts that into perspective. It’s neither imported nor uncommon in these parts. What chayote’s prevalence throughout the world really tells you is that it’s a versatile vegetable—or gourd, or fruit—and can probably be made to fit just about any set of taste buds. Try it out sometime. To get you started, here’s my favorite way to eat it.
MONTHLY RECIPES: Quinoa (藜麦) Salad with Chayote
Ingredients and supplies:
- 3 cups cooked quinoa (or couscous)
- ½ cup thinly sliced or diced red onion
- 1 pitted chayote (佛手瓜, foshougua), in short matchsticks
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup chopped basil and/or parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Juice of ½ lemon (optional)
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together vinegar, lemon juice (if using), olive oil, salt and pepper.
- Add in quinoa, onion, chayote and herbs.
- Toss to coat evenly and serve.
This is a salad recipe, and in my book that means it can – and should – be adapted. Substitute ingredients to your liking or add more. Try these: cherry tomatoes, cucumber, shredded carrot, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm or whatever else suits your fancy.
Serve with: white wine