It’s finally hot in Mexico City. We’re smack dab in the middle of that two-month window between March and April that brings a dry, summer heat before the snow has even started to melt in some northern climates.
The city is steaming, and chilangos are hunting down their favorite cool foods and the ubiquitous agua frescas sold in outdoor markets. We’re scouring the market, too, in search of our favorite hot weather treat, a cold chicozapote.
A palm-sized oval with a rough brown exterior and an interior similar to a cooked pear in consistency, the chicozapote is not a fruit you find outside of many tropical or sub-tropical climates. Called a different name in almost every Caribbean and Central American country, this fruit and its cousins trail down the continent: caimito in the West Indies, lucuma in the Andes of Peru, abiu in the South American Amazon; as well as mamey, zapote borracho, and star apple. Spanish colonization took the American zapotes to the Philippines, and their progeny can now be found across Asia as well, in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and India.
If you’ve heard the word zapote, it was probably in reference to the zapote negro, a fruit with midnight black pulp that is made into puddings and desserts across Mexico. But the zapote negro, along with the zapote blanco, and the South American zapote (called chupa-chupa) aren’t actually zapotes, and instead belong to a different plant family altogether. And while zapote negro is its own special kind of treat, we think that chicozapote has it beat on flavor by a mile.
The tan flesh of the chicozapote tastes of burnt sugar custard, a kind of Christmas-in-your-mouth, with a hint of cinnamon and sweet potato. This fruit is believed to be endemic to Mexico and Central America, the remnants of its trunks having been discovered as the pillars and supports of Maya palaces long before the conquest. According to Arquelogía Mexicana, zapote trees makes up 30 percent of the forest in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Chiapas and Quintana Roo.
The chicozapote tree is used for all kinds of aches and ailments. A decoction of the leaves is applied for fever, wounds and ulcers, the bark is said to cure diarrhea and fever, the ground seeds are used as a diuretic, the fruit itself is believed to improve digestion, and the pulverized roots used for thrush in babies. It’s most famous iteration, however, is as the main ingredient of something everyone’s heard of: chewing gum.
Long before Wrigley was making millions with Doublemint gum, the Maya were chewing on the latex of the chicozapote tree for cleaner teeth, fresher breath and as a way to stave off hunger. Once 19th-century inventor Thomas Adams got his hands on it, reportedly from an encounter with Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, it became the basis for the billion-dollar industry that we know today. In many of today’s brands, real chicle latex has been replaced by synthetics, but there is still a robust chicle extraction industry and it’s surprisingly sustainable – trees are tapped during a season and then left to rest for five to seven years in order to let them heal before being tapped again. The tapping requires an ancient technique used by the Maya for centuries that relies on a series of zigzag slices to the tree’s bark, which allow the latex to flow down into a collection bag at the base of the tree.
The tan flesh of the chicozapote tastes of burnt sugar custard, a kind of Christmas-in-your-mouth, with a hint of cinnamon and sweet potato.
The main challenge to this fruit is picking one at the proper ripeness: An unripe chicozapote is chalky and bitter, while an overripe one is mush inside a shell. The formidableness of this task is why we always leave it to Oscar Hernandez at Frutería Rafael, a stand in Colonia Roma’s Mercado Medellin, to choose.
“It should be neither too watery nor too hard,” says Oscar gently squeezing the chicozapotes in his display, “it [should] feel just the tiniest bit soft.”
If you ask, Oscar will pick out a chicozapote for today, tomorrow, or two days from now, buyer’s choice, but it requires gentle transport from the market to your kitchen as their skin bruises and breaks easily. His favorite harvest of the fruit comes from the state of Colima – which is ripe and selling right now during the city’s hottest months – but you can buy a chicozapote every day at the market except for around two months out of the year.
“There are places that make agua de zapote or chicozapote shakes,” he says, “but I like it natural, grabbing a slice and just eating it. And if you put in the fridge… even more delicious.” We wholeheartedly agree.