Pejibaye (pronounced pay-hee-by-yay) is the fruit of the Peach Palm tree. It’s indigenous to Central and tropical South America and for centuries has been a staple before and after European invasions in the 16th century. About the size of a plum, the bright reddish orange fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates and remains wildly popular, especially in Costa Rica.
The Peach Palm tree (bactris gasipaes) not only produces large clusters of fruit for 50 to 75 years but also is a major source for heart of palm that’s favored worldwide. From street vendors to top chefs Costa Ricans adore pejibaye. The thick-skinned raw fruit must be simmered in salted water from one to three hours before eating – it’s difficult to over cook the dense butternut squash like textured fruit.
Costa Ricans enjoy cooked pejibaye as a snack sliced and dipped in mayonnaise and sometimes coated in corn meal and fried. Chef Diego Seitour at Peace Lodge adds thin slices to his incomparable Ceviche Tucurrique of sea bass. Chef Francis Canal Bardot of San Jose’s premiere hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, features the fruit in its most popular incarnation as cream of pejibaye soup.
The dense texture of pejibaye ideally lends itself to soup. Yet as is common with a national dish, there is no one authentic recipe. The simplest are purees of cooked fruit with onions, water, a little milk and perhaps some garlic and cilantro. Other recipes include chicken or vegetable stock, cream and any number of additions such as celery, bell peppers, butter, carrots, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves.
What I’ve created is in keeping with my culinary belief that a recipe should enhance and not mask the natural flavor of the prime ingredient. I also like the silky mouth feel of adding heavy cream and the depth of flavor from a good chicken stock.
In North America it’s nearly impossible to find fresh pejibaye, even in Latino markets – the raw fruit is little known and perishable. In Florida, where I live, it is available in Latino markets preserved in jars ready to eat – after peeling the skin, splitting the fruit and removing the seed.
Cream of Pejibaye Soup – 4 servings
- 12 pejibayes
- 4 cups of well flavored chicken stock
- 1 cup of heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium sweet onion, diced
- ½ cup diced celery
- 3 cloves of garlic, diced
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 roasted red pepper plus a couple tablespoons cream
- ¼ cup minced fresh cilantro
- If you happen to have raw pejibayes, cover with cold water and add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for at least one hour. Cool enough to handle and peel off the skin with a small sharp knife. Cut the fruit off the seed – the fruit will be dry and easy to separate from its seed. If you’re using ready to eat pejibayes in a jar, drain, rinse in cold water, peel and slice.
- Preheat the oven to 400° and place the whole red pepper in a small baking dish. Roast the pepper for 30 to 40 minutes, turning every 10 minutes, until soft and the skin is slightly brown. Remove the pepper to a small bowl, cover and let cool. When cool enough to handle slip off the skin, remove the seeds, slice in strips and set the roasted pepper aside.
- Melt the butter in a heavy four quart saucepan.
- Add the diced onion and celery and cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft, transparent but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for two additional minutes.
- Add the sliced pejibayes and chicken stock. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- While the soup is simmering, heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat just until small bubbles appear in a ring around the pan. Add the cream and white pepper to the soup and turn off the heat.
- Puree the soup with an immersion blender or transfer in batches to a blender and liquefy – I prefer using an immersion blender directly in the pot.
- Puree the roasted red pepper in a blender or with an immersion blender adding just enough cream to make a smooth sauce.
- Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with a flourish of red pepper puree and a sprinkle of cilantro.
There are conflicting Internet statistics on the caloric content of pejibaye. The calorie counts on sites range from an outrageous 1,100 calories per fruit to a low of 56. On the jar of prepared fruit I’m using the nutritional label indicates 190 calories for three pejibaye – 65 per fruit. Considering the fruit is not sweet, I find it difficult to believe any higher figure. Regardless, it’s an easy, nutritious and flavorful national icon of beautiful Costa Rica – ps: and farm animals love pejibaye.
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Peace Lodge – La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Hotel Grano de Oro, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Special thanks to my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.
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