There’s no telling exactly when chokos arrived in Australia. The plant renowned for scrambling over backyard chookhouses and dunnies is also known as the choyote, mirliton, güisquil, pimpinella, mango squash or vegetable pear. It probably arrived quite early in colonial times along with the avocado and other Central American natives. However, the first mention I can find is in The Age, Melbourne, reporting on a meeting of the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria in July 1890:
A note on a gourd known as the “choko” and lately introduced from Jamaica into Queensland was read by Mr D. Le Souef. The Age, 18 July 1890.
During the 1890s the choko seems to have been enthusiastically adopted in Queensland and New South Wales. In an article in Brisbane’s Courier in 1893, touting the benefits of sub-irrigation, one grower bragged about harvesting 80 chokos from a single plant. The following year, it was recommended to Sydney’s home gardeners in a column titled Kitchen Garden:
The choko, which has some slight resemblance to the vegetable marrow when cooked, seems to be coming into favour as a vegetable. It bears its curious fruits most abundantly, and is an easy plant to grow, for it will trail over a fence or hedge or on the ground. It is worth a trial. The fruit for sowing can be obtained from the Sydney seedsmen. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 2 June 1894.
As to the flavour – well, as now, opinions back then varied. The Truth was enthusiastic, saying that in Queensland the choko was “the most popular vegetable, beating in flavor and delicacy the most perfect vegetable marrow or even the finest asparagus”. However, an 1895 letter to the Gympie Times decried it as insipid and tasteless.
Despite its detractors, the choko clung on. It never really caught on in Victoria but was something of an icon in Queensland and New South Wales. It even became a part of the Aussie language. One of the many Australian expressions used to describe someone who is useless or incompetent is ‘He couldn’t train a choko vine to grow up a dunny wall’.
The backyard choko vine became a life-saver during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recipes for chokos proliferated. There were chokos with sauce, chokos on toast, choko pickles, and the vegetable was used as a substitute for apples and pears in desserts.
When I was researching my book A Timeline of Australian Food: from mutton to MasterChef, I came across a recipe for Choko pie. It came from an old bushy, Hilton ‘Curly’ Pond whose mother used to serve it to her customers at a Longreach pub in the 1940s. Those who knew him said Curly ate sandwiches, roasts, sausages and sometimes steak. He drank only tea and beer and was never seen to eat fresh fruit or vegetables, although fruit cake was a favourite. Curly’s recipe was supplied to me courtesy of Rhonda Hetzel.
Boil one large choko with no salt (until tender). Drain and mash. Add ½ cup sugar, juice of one lemon and two tablespoons of custard powder. Put into a cooked pastry case.
Mix 2oz (60g) melted butter together with 2oz (60g) sugar, 4oz (115g) coconut. Sprinkle over choko mixture and bake in a moderate oven till cooked and brown – about 30 to 45 minutes.
The depression-era dependence on chokos may have contributed to a widespread loathing of the vegetable, which can kindly be described as bland. The sticky skin also makes it messy to prepare. The Old Foodie writes on her website:
It was perpetrated upon Australia at some time early in the country’s history, and there are some who believe that if the identity of the importer is ever found, then retrospective retribution will be applied. The choko grows on a vine, and to say that it is quick-growing and prolific in its country of adoption are understatements of great magnitude.
However, chokos seem to be enjoying a revival in the 2020s. In the magazine delicious. Matt Preston reported a surge in online interest in 2021. He recommended that they be treated like yellow squash, served raw in salads, or cured in thin slices with salt and lemon juice to serve with fish.
I suspect that the choko issue is one on which we will remain divided.