As a flavour chaser from way back, and a gardener whose tastes run to the fanciful, I’m forever trying new things out back. But despite this rather naive enthusiasm, it’s not very often that I stumble upon a climatically feasible new food crop that is worth anything more than novelty value. Oh, I’ve had my successes: so-called tropical food plants that will grow here in Auckland in bold defiance of conventional wisdom. Some even offer up a few edible morsels (winged beans and cassava fall into this category) in a good year. But more often than not – a LOT more often than not – they prove more trouble than they are really worth. The chances are that if something grown for food overseas could be grown here it would be, either commercially or for the home garden racket.
A rare exception to this rather gloomy truth is the wonderful, delicious, hardy and rampant caigua (Cyclanthera pedata). This locally, and frankly inexplicably obscure member of the cucumber family, has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years, and is regarded as one of the finest native food crops of the region. That’s quite some billing too, considering potatoes, peppers and tomatoes come from the same part of the word.
Although all parts of the caigua (said: kai-waa) plant are edible, the curved and mostly hollow green pods are of the most interest and value in the kitchen. Around the size of a jalapeno pepper, with a scattering of soft, ornamental spikes (although some fruit are quite ‘baled’), caigua pods tastes like a perfect fusion of green beans and cucumber. They have a crisp, succulent texture and are utterly delicious, either raw or used anywhere you would use green beans. In parts of South America they are popular stuffed with curd cheese, battered and deep fried as a bar snack.
Caigua plants grow at an alarming rate, and will quickly escape up into the nearest tree if not kept in check, putting on many metres of growth in a season. Fortunately they are strictly annuals in our climate, and sulk into submission once the cool weather kicks in.
Besides being easy to grow and uncommonly good, caigua are believed to offer a number of potent health-giving properties, including reducing cholesterol levels. That said, there is not much in the way of hard evidence to back this up, so don’t pin your hopes or health on it just yet.
For my purposes all that matters is that the plants are seemingly pest- and disease-free, thrive on neglect, and produce buckets full of great tasting fruit/vegetables.
At the moment caigua are only available in New Zealand through a single seller on Trademe, but I expect this to change. As a future darling of the restaurant scene, caigua have huge potential. I can well imagine chefs falling love with them – however briefly. Caigua can be steamed, fried, stuffed (see above), eaten raw and even turned into soup.
I’m pretty reserved and cautious about jumping on bandwagons, but in the case of fabulous, fruitful caigua, I’m more than happy to start one. Hop on board.