Chayote Isn't Your Average Summer Squash
Chef Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen taught us how to cook chayote two ways: a sesame chicken noodle bowl and a cold, spicy salad.
Photography by Farideh Sadeghin
Welcome to Health Goth, our column dedicated to cooking vegetables in ways that even our most cheeseburger-loving, juice-bar-loathing readers would approve of. Not everyone realizes this, but vegetables actually do taste good. We invite chefs to prove this assertion—and they do, time and time again.
Before he even graduated from college, chef Lucas Sin had racked up quite the resume. After cooking at restaurants in Hong Kong, Sin trained at Kyoto's Michelin-starred Kikunoi Honten, then at Washington's Modernist Cuisine; at Yale, he ran a pop-up dinner series called Y Pop-Up. Soon after he graduated, Sin started Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual Chinese restaurant with locations in New York and Haven. Basically, before he even stops by the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen, we're already impressed.
It's a nice spring day when Sin pays us a visit, so we're craving fresh vegetables. We're in luck: Sin's here to teach us the merits of chayote, a Central American gourd that's also popular throughout Asia. "It’s a huge stir-fry ingredient around the spring in China,” Sin tells us as he sets up the firm, green vegetables. He likes working with chayote for its crunch, but he adds with a laugh, "It looks like Cafe Grumpy." (It does.) He'll take advantage of chayote's versatility in a stir-fried chicken noodle bowl and a spicy chayote salad.
For the noodle bowl, Sin will lightly sear chayote, along with chicken thighs, in a ginger-scallion marinade; that'll top fresh noodles tossed in a furu sesame sauce. The bulk of prepping this dish is making sauces, and if you prepare them ahead of time, this noodle bowl is simple enough for a weeknight dinner.
Sin smashes a knob of peeled ginger and a bunch of scallions using the side of his large cleaver, and then minces them finely while adding a little salt. "Salt encourages the water to come out. The finer you get it, the nicer it is," Sin says as he chops. His knife work is fast, and the trick, he tells us, is to move the cleaver with his right hand while hovering his left hand above the top of the knife. The lower you keep your left hand, the faster you can go, he says. He adds Shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, and oil, and then drops the chicken thighs into the mixture to marinate (overnight is ideal).
The furu sesame sauce, meanwhile, goes into a food processor: a blend of sesame paste and oil, soy sauce, sugar, and black vinegar. The secret, however, is furu, a fermented bean curd from China that lends a deep savoriness. Having more of this sauce isn't a bad thing. "The good thing about this sauce is it can be served cold or hot," Sin says.
Then we get to the chayote. Sin cuts the green vegetable in half to reveal a pit in the center, which he removes; everything else is edible. "The best way to think about cooking for me is lateral cooking: A cucumber behaves like a chayote. I think this is a good substitute for a cucumber or zucchini," Sin says. "I think you should always be undercooking this. If you cook it a tiny bit, it gets super sweet. If you overcook it, it gets mushy and doesn’t taste like very much." After quartering the chayote, he cuts it into thin slices.
In a hot pan, Sin sears the marinated chicken thighs, and once they're crisp and charred, he takes them out to rest. With the pan smoking hot, Sin slides in the chayote slices, seasoning with salt, sugar (to make the salt "more salty," according to Sin), and white pepper. They'll cook quickly. "You're looking for the translucent bits," Sin says. The liquid that comes out should look thick and lightly cloudy, as though you've added cornstarch to water. "If you see water coming out, you've cooked it too long."
Sin boils a handful of long, fresh wheat noodles. "We call them 'birthday noodles' because the length of the strand is like long life," Sin says, separating the noodles. The plain, thin noodles from Twin Marquis are Sin's preference, and luckily, they're available in the refrigerated section of most Asian grocery stores. Sin mixes them with the furu sesame sauce, heaps them into a bowl, and adds on a generous helping of chayote and slices of chicken.
The noodle bowl is meal in itself. But we have extra chayote, so Sin shows us another preparation: a cold, spicy chayote salad. He slices two chayotes on a mandolin; seasons with salt, sugar, and white pepper; and lets it all sit in the fridge (ideally, for a few hours to overnight). While Sin cuts, we get a little off-topic: starting with a discussion about New Haven pizza, we somehow end up at time travel, on which, it turns out, Sin wrote his college thesis.
With all the chayote cut, it's time to make a lemon curd-based vinaigrette for the salad, and we get back on track. “When my sister graduated from high school, I got her a bottle of lemon curd," Sin says. "Because it has egg yolks, it emulsifies, so it’s super easy for at home." Into the curd, Sin adds gingko vinegar from a Korean company called Hanega, made with herbs and fruits and aged for five years. It's sweet and herbal—drinkable, even. With a dash of oil, lemon, and lightly-ground Sichuan peppercorn, the dressing is bright and fruity.
To serve, Sin scoops out some chayote, squeezes the slices lightly to release extra water, layers them on a plate with dressing, and drizzles on chile oil. It's easy, delicious, and worth keeping in your back pocket for the hot, humid days when turning on the stove seems unimaginable.
And when those days come, so will the onslaught of squash and zucchini—add chayote into your routine, and summer squash might just feel a little less boring.