Chayote Is the Perfect Vegan Fish Substitute
This thin-skinned, light and crunchy green squash makes for a perfect vegan ceviche — and a great canvas for further fishy experimentation
A vegan ceviche is one of those dishes that can be whipped up with such ease, yet comes off to guests as utterly considered. But not all ingredients are created equally: While I’ve made delicious seasonal ceviche using corn and peach in the summertime, there’s one vegetable that has proven indispensable — and I’ve only found out about its powers recently, though it’s available in many supermarkets. This ceviche game-changer? The pale green or white, avocado-shaped squash called chayote, which is easy to work with thanks to its thin skin. Whether cutting it into cubes or ribbons, it’s hard to screw up.
For chef Karla Torres Ortega, who serves a chayote ceviche in the squash’s own hollowed-out skins at her restaurant Teta’s in Cayey, Puerto Rico, using chayote reminds her of a connection to the land — and of the importance of not counting out vegetables just because there’s meat or fish available.
“I chose ceviche because of the simplicity of preparation,” she tells me. “Two or three elements and it’s done. Rawness, crunchiness and acidity balanced with chayote’s own flavor that is so special. Not a long time ago, here in Puerto Rico, vegetables were left on the plate, mostly ignored. Now there are a lot of us that want vegetables to be the protagonist of dishes and we are preparing them in a way friendly to the diner, as to open that palate to a connection with the produce of our land.”
Ceviche provides a simple entry point: People are already familiar with it as a fresh, biting preparation for fish. Sliding in squash doesn’t require much of a leap. Sub it in for fish in any classic recipe and let the infusion of acid, oil, salt, and other vegetable flavors do the real work.
At the decidedly more fine-dining restaurant Verde Mesa, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, chef Gabriel Hernandez serves a delicate preparation, but he only started to make it the star of a dish out of necessity, when there were fewer local vegetables available after the agricultural devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“Before the hurricane, we used to pickle it,” he says. “There was plenty of chayote and very warm weather, so a refreshing dish, simple, with not too many ingredients, inspired by ceviche, was the choice.”
Ceviche certainly isn’t the only preparation that serves chayote. At Jajaja, a vegan Mexican restaurant in New York City, they use a hemp and flaxseed batter to serve it in their “fish” tacos. Something about its light flavor and crunchy texture just works for any dish one would usually reach for fish to make.
Torres also adds it to dishes like an eggplant stew with Moroccan spices, and puts it on a skewer as a satay, served with a peanut, cilantro and smoked tamarind sauce. Hernandez suggests boiling it, while allowing it to retain its structure, then serving take on a potato salad, with either a mayo or mustard-based dressing. Like the satay, he says it makes a great grilled dish. “Make some nice slices and blanch them,” he says. “Later grill it and top it with a nice green sauce like salsa verde, mojo verde and chimichurri. Because of its neutral flavor profile, Hernandez notes, chayote “is about experimentation.” Whether a replacement for fish or a new barbecue go-to, one won’t be disappointed when reaching for this forgiving squash.