Chaya – aka Mexican tree spinach or Mayan spinach – is combined with lean ground pork, black beans, and Mexican herbs in a fried rice dish inspired by Asian fried rice. A healthy fiesta-in-a-bowl, Mexican Fried Rice With Chaya and Ground Pork gets garnished with cotija, avocado, and cilantro for a light and lively weeknight dinner.
Chaya is a large shrub native to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. A popular leafy vegetable in Yucatan cuisine, it is similar to spinach but stronger in flavor. Chaya leaves contain cyanogenic glycosides. Before you run the other way, they’re in good company; lima beans, almonds, sorghum, stone fruits, and bamboo shoots also contain cyanogenic glycosides. The leaves must be cooked prior to eating. The raw leaves contain a toxic substance that is volatized when cooked. Small amounts of the raw leaves are well-tolerated (ie. in juice blends). “Nutritional analysis has shown Chaya richer in iron than spinach and is a good source of potassium and calcium. Chaya leaf is high in protein (5.7%), and contains crude fiber (1.9%), calcium (199.4 mg/100 g), potassium (217.2 mg/100 g), iron (11.4 mg/100 g), vitamin C (164.7 mg/100 g), and carotene (0.085 mg/100 g). The levels of Chaya leaf nutrients are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables, and like spinach it provides appreciable amounts of several essential mineral macronutrients necessary for human health.” Chaya, A Super Green of the Mayan Diet: Mayan Diet Series Part 1, Dr. J.E. Williams. While not yet widely available in markets, it is easily grown in warmer climates like the southern U.S. For more on chaya, see Chaya: An Ancient Plant for the New Garden.
I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure
~~ Anthony Bourdain
I discovered chaya on a recent excursion with my husband to the McAllen Fireman’s Park Farmers Market. One of the merchant farmers enthusiastically explained how and where the plant grows, and sent us home with a recipes brochure and a bag of lush, healthy-looking chaya leaves. Given my propensity for cooking with new and unfamiliar ingredients, my “wheels” immediately began spinning. My first thought was to make a Mexican version of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). The chaya look sturdier than the brine-packed grape leaves I purchase to make dolmades. Eventually, though, I abandoned the idea of the elaborate and complicated dish in favor of a simple, quick customizable dish that can be adapted to other leafy greens… Thus, the idea of a Mexican Fried Rice With Chaya and Ground Pork was born.
This dish can be quite simple and quick to prepare, or it can be more elaborate and time consuming. The choice is up to you. On one end of the spectrum, you utilize leftover rice and pre-made red chile sauce. On the other end of the spectrum, you make your own Ancho-Guajillo Chile Sauce and need to cook the rice. For the best results when making fried rice, use Chinese-style medium grain rice, jasmine rice, or sushi rice. You can use either white or brown rice. The rice should either be cooked fresh, spread on a tray, and allowed to cool for five minutes, or alternatively transferred to a loosely covered container and refrigerated for at least 12 hours and up to three days.
My preference is to make the chile sauce, although I wouldn’t rule out using a good quality red sauce like Roadrunner Chile Company Hatch New Mexico Red Chile Sauce. If you’re making your own sauce, stem and seed the dried ancho and guajillo chiles, and cover them with boiling water to soften 30 minutes. Then, remove the stems from the chaya leaves, cover them with water, and simmer them 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water, and pat them dry. Coarsely chop them, and you’re good-to-go. If substituting spinach, skip the pre-cooking entirely. If using kale, you may wish to pre-cook it, but 10 minutes should be sufficient. Baby kale can be added at the last minute like you would spinach.
Mexican Fried Rice With Chaya and Ground Pork is extremely versatile. Omit the ground meat, and top it with scrambled and sliced egg (as you do for Asian fried rice)… or better yet, top it with a runny poached egg! My favorite 😀 You may prefer ground beef or turkey to the pork. You can vary the vegetables and/or the beans as well. I can also vouch for the fact that it is delicious for breakfast! Leftovers are easily rejuvenated with a quick sauté in a non-stick pan. This is one healthy Mexican one-pot dish you’ve simply got to try!
By the way, the fried rice was really good with a dark beer – this is a Real Ale Scotch Ale. Fantástico! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this (probably) unfamiliar ingredient…
Mexican Fried Rice With Chaya and Ground Pork
- 1 to 2 bundles chaya (see notes)
- 2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil divided use
- 1 pound lean ground pork (see notes)
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 1 teaspoon garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
- 4 cups cooked rice (see notes)
- 2 tablespoons red chile sauce (see notes)
- 1 can black beans rinsed and drained
- 1 cup corn
- 1/2 cup cilantro coarsely chopped
- lime wedges
- red chile sauce (see notes)
- crumbled cotija
- egg (see notes)
- Clip the stems from the chaya leaves. Cover with water, and boil gently for 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water, drain, and chop. Set aside.
- While chaya leaves boil, prep the ingredients for the fried rice and the garnishes.
- Fry the ground pork (or other ground meat) with the onion and garlic, until thoroughly browned. Add the cumin and Mexican oregano, and stir-fry and addition minute or two until fragrant. If the meat is super lean, add a bit of oil to keep it all from sticking. If making it vegetarian, omit the meat, and fry the onion, garlic, and spices in a bit of oil. When cooked, scrape mixture into a prep bowl and set aside.
- Wipe the wok or saute pan clean. Heat the remaining oil. Stir-fry half the cooked rice. Remove and set aside. Repeat with the remaining rice. Add the first batch of rice back into the pan. Stir in the red chile sauce until rice is coated.
- Add the ground meat mixture (or onions and garlic mixture) back into the pan, along with the black beans, corn, chopped chaya (or other greens), and cilantro. Give it all a couple of minutes in the wok or pan on high heat stiring constantly.
- Divide among 4 plates. Top with preferred garnishes, and enjoy!
As I mentioned in the post, chaya is not widely available (though I'm hoping it will be eventually!). It must be cooked prior to eating. Simply boil it 20 minutes, rinse, drain, chop. My 1 bunch when cooked yielded about 3/4 cup chopped. Spinach can be substituted with no pre-cooking; kale would benefit from the leaves being boiled for a few minutes prior to being stir-fried. Baby kale and chard would also be good options.
I use a 90% lean ground pork, but feel free to substitute your favorite ground meat or omit for a healthy vegetarian option (with egg and the black beans and rice, you're good on protein).
See the post for additional information on frying rice. You can use leftover rice or freshly made rice.
I love, love, love this Ancho-Guajillo Chile Sauce You can substitute your own favorite, but it needs to be a chile sauce rather than a salsa.
Have fun with the garnishes. You might do scrambled and sliced egg in the same way you would for Asian fried rice. A runny poached or fried egg would also be delicious, and a great way to bump up the protein for a vegetarian main dish!
I like to use a good, heavy wok. A large saute pan is fine. A non-stick surface will make it easier.
The prep and cook times vary according to whether or not you're using chaya, whether you're using leftover rice or not, etc. Rice takes about 20 minutes, and you can make it while the chaya cooks.