December 5, 2018
Roasted chestnuts, honey-glazed ham, gingerbread, and…underground tejocote? Yes, tejocote (pronounced teh-hoe-COAT-eh) are as common as yule logs in France during the Christmas season in Mexico – in fact, they’re so indispensable to a proper Central American Christmas that there was even once a thriving tejocote smuggling operation running fruit from Mexico into the United States.
See, this little crabapple-like fruit is the primary ingredient in the traditional holiday punch known as “ponche navideño.” It’s a common sight (and smell) across Mexico and Central America all winter long, and one taste will tell you why. This is NOT just an apple!
Read on to learn more about these peculiar little “forbidden fruits.”
The name tejocote comes from the Nahuatl (or Aztec) word “texocotl,” meaning “stone fruit.” Also known as manzanilla, or “little apple,” they are the fruit of the Mexican hawthorne tree native to the mountainous regions of Mexico and Guatemala. It’s one of the few edible fruits produced by hawthorne, a large plant family common across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America and Europe.
Tejocotes have been a part of Mexican history since the age of the Aztec empire in the 1400s, and likely much earlier. They were an essential part of the rich agricultural heritage that made the incredible urban development in the Valley of Mexico possible.
Fast forward to the late 1900s, and the tejocote caught the eye of the USDA. There was some thought that tejocote could harbor pests that were a risk to American agriculture. As such, the USDA made it illegal to bring the fruit across the border into the United States. But as the Mexican-American population continued to grow into the tens of millions, the trade could not be stopped. Despite some small-scale attempts to grow them domestically in Southern California, tejocote from Mexico, where they are cheap and abundant, were often smuggled across the border (the canned or frozen versions were no substitute for fresh). In fact, between 2002 and 2006, more tejocotes were seized than any other fruit by the USDA’s Smuggling, Interdiction, and Trade Compliance Program!
Finally, in 2014 the USDA re-examined the tejocote. After new testing, it was determined that the fruit was not a risk for pests. Today, tejocote can be legally imported into the United States from Mexico – a major win for the more than 36 million Mexican-Americans who crave authentic ingredients for their generations-old family recipes.
Appearance, Taste, & Texture
These tiny fruits closely resemble the crabapple in appearance. They’re round with skin that varies in color from red to orange to golden yellow and is often speckled with tiny black dots. They have a pillow-y, cream-colored flesh and a core containing a few tightly clustered seeds. Raw, the fruit is often described as mealy, with a mildly bitter undertone. Not an entirely pleasant eating experience.
But once cooked, their flesh softens and releases its sugars. The flavor also begins to develop, a complex apple-like flavor with distinct notes of pear and apricot. The texture becomes more dense and slippery, making it suitable for a number of different applications.
Tejocote are a seasonal treat available during the fall and early winter months, with the greatest demand around the holiday season from November through December.
Tejocote are rich in vitamins C and B (great immunity boosters!), as well as calcium and iron. They have been used in traditional Mexican medicine to help treat respiratory issues, and the root has also been used as a diuretic – although neither of these uses have been confirmed by conclusive studies.
Storage & Handling
Choose fruit that is clean and bright with little-to-no blemishes or scarring. For optimum quality, keep tejocote between 30 and 35 °F. They will begin to become increasingly spongy over time.
Tejocote can be eaten out of hand, however, they are most often cooked or otherwise processed. Because they contain a high level of pectin, a naturally occurring thickener, they are often used in jams, candies, pastes, and paletas.
Tejocote play an important role in Mexican culture: during the Day of the Dead celebrations, tejocote are made into a candy called “rielitos,” by pounding cooked tejocote into a paste and combining with sugar and chili powder. Most popularly, tejocote are used to flavor and thicken a Mexican Christmas punch called “ponche.” Whole or cored tejocote are added to water with various spices and other ingredients such as tamarind and sugar cane. Like many traditional recipes, each family has their own distinct “ponche” recipe, but regardless of the other components, tejocote are a must-have to give the punch its characteristic mouthfeel. Tejocote can also be peeled and preserved in heavy syrup with a touch of canela (true cinnamon).
Recipe: Traditional Ponche Navideño
Tejocote, Christmas, Holiday, New Years, Ponche Navideño, Winter, Fruit