Indigenous Species: Curcubita ficifolia
The genus Curcubita includes the edible-skinned summer squash, the pumpkins, and gourds. All are indigenous to the New World. The name of this particular variety is derived from the Nahuatl word: Tzilacayotli, and while its actual location of origin is not known to a certainty, the names it is called by in other parts of Central and South America are clearly derived from this word, so its origin is credited to Mexico.
Nutritionally, this species differs from other hard squash, like pumpkins; low in beta-carotene (the flesh is very pale yellow in color) and relatively high in carbohydrates. It does have a unique value, however, in that it is high in a substance called D-Chiro-Inositol. This is used successfully in Asia to treat diabetes and also sold in supplement form for treating Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in women. There is a scourge of diabetes in Mexico but the preferred preparation, dulce, boiled in a sugar syrup until candied, likely cancels out any effectiveness of this substance.
In Mexico, a fervently devout Catholic country, food and religious ritual are inseparable. The fruits of the land are presented as offerings or shared communally on saints’ days and other Holy days. The Chilacayote has its place of honor on Viernes de Dolores.
On the Friday before Palm Sunday, Mexicans honor the Virgin Mother’s suffering in the knowledge her Son would be soon put to death. If you are a practicing Catholic, and are wondering why you have never heard about this day, “Viernes de Dolores” – translated literally as Friday of Pain – was declared by Vatican II as redundant to the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, marked on September 15. But in countries like Mexico, where the Virgin Mother is so deeply revered, the Holy See looked the other way (so to speak), and the feast day carries on.
The mottled pattern on the skin of the Chilacayote (and the leaves of the plant), I am told, symbolizes the falling tears of the Virgin Mary as they splashed to the ground. Dulce de Chilacayote is traditionally handed out to visitors of the altars that are set up to revere the Virgin Mother.
To prepare the squash a dulce, it is cut into pieces and boiled in a syrup of piloncillo and spices like canela, anise and cloves. Now,the mature squash has a very hard rind, I have discovered. Cutting into it is a dangerous production, and it’s been recommended to me that I use a machete, which, quite frankly, I find terrifying. Another solution is to drop it from a height or fling it onto hard ground, which, while less controlled, is obviously less risky.
The inside is a pale yellow, with many dark flat seeds, similar to, but larger than that of a watermelon. These are used like other squash seeds and are rich in healthy oils.
An economy of labour is evident in many traditional foods that you will find sold in the mercados. Generally “hecho a mano” (made by hand) means some processes, like painstakingly picking out seed after seed, are deemed not worth the fuss and bother so in this case, the large dark brown seeds are often left in the candy. The result is an authenticity of product– its natural origin not obscured.
Coming soon, I will prepare my own chilacayote dulce and will post more photos (will I drop, or machete the thing into pieces…) as well as the recipe I use.