In its natural form, chapaya (Astrocaryum mexicanum) is a cluster of spiky, caterpillar-like palm fruit bursting from a protective casing hanging several feet above the ground. When harvested and prepared, the fruit takes on a convincingly meat-like form and flavor.
Chapaya is a source of nourishment for communities living in the steamy, lowland rainforests of southern Mexico and El Petén, a region in northern Guatemala. Paleoethnobotanical evidence from the Maya city of Chinikiha, in eastern Chiapas, Mexico, suggests it has been consumed by indigenous people for at least a thousand years.
Chapaya is primarily harvested in the dry season. After removing its spiny skin, cooks prepare it in a variety of ways, including roasted in an oven or pan-fried. When prepared, chapaya has a taste and texture similar to a vegan “hamburger,” almost meat, but not quite.
Chapaya rarely shows up at restaurants, but the lowland town of Palenque, located next to the Classic-period Maya archaeological site also known as Palenque, is a good place to look. The palm can be easily found at local markets. At the Restaurante Maya Cañada in Palenque, one of the few restaurants in the world with chapaya on the menu, they combine the chopped palm fruit with scrambled eggs for breakfast or serve it with tortillas in a mix of onions, garlic, and spices in the evening.