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Pipinola: Poor People’s Food?

January 6, 2017, 8:49 AM HST
* Updated January 6, 9:12 AM
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Known as “poor people’s food” or “pig food,” pipinola grows well here in Hawai‘i and can often be found growing in the wild. The actual name of this underused vegetable is chayote.

So exactly what is it, one may ask, and what do you do with it?

Pipinola is actually a member of the gourd family, along with melons, cucumbers and squash.

Native to Mesoamerica, it can now be found in almost all regions of the world. It is often found in Thai and Chinese soups and stews.

Unlike other members of the gourd family that contain many seeds, the pipinola has one large soft seed in the middle that adheres to the flesh of the fruit. It grows on a vine that sprouts multiple vines. When one vine is done bearing fruit, it dies back and another one replaces it. One single root can have over a dozen vines bearing fruit at the same time.

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The entire plant is edible. The single seed in the middle has a chestnut-like texture and taste. The flesh can be described as crisp and almost like a water chestnut or raw potato. The vines tend to be very fibrous except for very tips.

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The vines tend to be very fibrous, except for the very tips. The last 6 to 8 inches of the vine and young heart-shaped leaves can be picked and eaten raw, or blanched and added to salads or even used in stir fry and soups.

The tuberous roots of the plant can be eaten like a yam.

It is recommended that the fruits be harvested when they are approximately 4 to 5 inches long and still have their “baby fuzz” on the rind. At this stage there is no need to peel away the rind. Note: the rind does get quite tough for eating when it is older; however, the fleshy part inside is fine.

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Due to its mild flavor, this versatile fruit easily takes on the flavors of sauces and spices and it can be used to make pies, stir fry, soups and stews and can even pickled by simply slicing thin and soaking in your leftover pickle juice for a few weeks.

Pigs adore pipinola fruit and many hog farmers utilize this it as a supplement to the other pig feed.

It is considered a healthy, low-calorie food. One-half cup of pipinola contains approximately 15 calories. It is rich in amino acids and is found to contain small amounts of iron and calcium.

Many cultures throughout the world have utilized the leaves of the pipinola vine to make a tea to help dissolve kidney stones as well as to help treat arteriosclerosis and hypertension. It is also reported to be a great diuretic and have cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties.

Pipinola has the potential to be a great sustainable food source for the island community if it is utilized more.

The next time you see the odd-looking, wrinkled, pear-shaped fruit in the supermarket or farmers market or even growing wild on the side of the road… remember it’s more than poor people or pig food.

Pipinola fruit ready to be prepared. Darde Gamayo photo.

Healthy pipinola vine growing in the wild. Darde Gamayo photo.

Young shoots and leaves of the pipinola vine. Darde Gamayo photo.

Pipinola fruit on vine. Darde Gamayo photo.

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