Pejibaye is the fruit of a palm that originated in the Amazonian areas of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, but it has been cultivated and distributed by Indians from ancient times. It is rich in calories and nutrients. Of prehistoric introduction into Costa Rica, it is plentiful in a seemingly wild state of the Atlantic side of that country and also much cultivated. Every Indian dwelling has a patch of Pejibaye palms. The palm has also been planted as partial shade for coffee. It is not as common anywhere else in Central America, though it is fairly abundant in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, and has long been grown in commercial plots in Panama to furnish fruits for local markets. In Colombia and Peru, great quantities of the fruits appear in the markets and vendors sell them along the streets. There are large stands of this palm in the Orinoco region of Venezuela and equatorial Brazil. The Indians of Colombia and Ecuador hold festivals when the pejibayes are in season, though in the latter country the fruits are valued more as feed for livestock than as food for humans.
Pejibaye, a relative of the coconut, is one of Costa Rica’s most unusual treats. Pejibayes grow in clusters on palm trees, like miniature coconuts. The part that you eat would correspond to the fibrous husk, while the hard pejibaye seed, when cracked open, reveals a thin layer of bitter white meat around a hollow core. The bright orange or red pejibayes are delicious boiled in salted water, then peeled, halved and pitted and eaten alone or with mayonnaise. Their flavor is difficult to describe. They are not sweet, but more a combination of chestnut and pumpkin with a thick, fibrous texture. You can buy a racimo (bunch) of raw pejibayes at the Mercado Borbon and boil them up for parties, or you can buy them in the supermarkets peeled and canned to take home as souvenirs. Today there are scattered specimens in southern Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Trinidad. The palm was introduced into the Philippines in 1924. In the 1970’s, the possibility of growing pejibayes in India was inspired by settlers of East Indian lineage in Trinidad and South America who produce and sell the fruits.
In 1978, Brazilian horticulturists undertook a study to determine the feasibility of establishing pejibaye plantations in the State of Sao Paulo with a view to exploiting the fruit and the tenninal bud (heart, or palmito). There has been much interest generated in recent years in the cultivation of the palm solely for its hearts which are of high quality. Costa Rica is a leader in this enterprise and there the hearts are being canned commercially. The fruit is caustic in its natural state. It is commonly boiled; in fact, it is customary to boil the fruits for 3 hours in salted water, sometimes with fat pork added, before marketing. Boiling causes the flesh to separate easily from the seed and usually the skin as well, though in some varieties the skin adheres to the flesh even after cooking. It is only necessary to remove the skin from the cooked flesh which can then be eaten out-of-hand. The pre-boiled fruit is sometimes deep-fried or roasted and served as a snack garnished with mayonnaise or a cheese-dip. It is also mixed with cornmeal, eggs and milk and fried, and is often employed as stuffing for roasted fowl.
Occasionally it is made into jam. Oven dried fruits have been kept for 6 months and then boiled for half an hour which causes them to regain their characteristic texture and flavor. Peeled, seeded, halved fruits, canned in brine, have been exported to the United States. Dried fruits can be ground into flour for use in various dishes. A strong alcoholic drink is made by allowing the raw, sugared flesh to stand for a few days until it ferments. This is prohibited in some parts of tropical America. Young flowers may be chopped and added to omelettes. The cooked seeds are eaten like chestnuts but are hard and considered difficult to digest.
1kg Pejibayes, halved and stoned
juice of 1 small lemon
1kg caster sugar
1 knob butter
Place the Pejibayes halves, lemon juice and water in a large non-reactive saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the fruit is soft. Remove from heat, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved completely. Return the pan to the heat, add the butter and stir until melted.
Bring the jam to a full boil and boil rapidly for 15 minutes, then test for setting. If setting point has not been reached, boil for 5 minutes more, then test again. Pour into warm sterilized jars and cover immediately.