Sat, Jul 21, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Bottling it up

The bottle gourd adds variety to the summer menu and is one of the more easily accessible “local” vegetables, with a slight sweetness and firm texture

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Bottle gourd pancakes make an excellent snack served with a little thick soy sauce.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Summer is always a hard time for those who enjoy local vegetables as the hot, humid weather makes “natural” cultivation of those delicate plants that are the mainstay of supermarket fresh produce aisles difficult and buyers instinctively reach for foreign imports, hothouse cultivation and worst of all, heavily sprayed crops that have been toughened up against the climate by large doses of chemical supplements.

Visits to the local farmers market generally turns up large quantities of sweet potato leaves and orka, various types of fern, unloved bitter gourd leaves and goji berry leaves. There are also a wide variety of melons or gourds, which are also well adapted to the hot, humid conditions of the summer months and these can add much to the dinner table.

The bottle gourd (蒲瓜) is currently in season and is an excellent vegetable for the hot weather, both from a nutritional and culinary perspective. The bottle gourd has gained some traction on the western food scene for its use as a healthy beverage that aids weight loss, often referred to by its Hindi name lauki. Its culinary uses in Asia are widespread and in Taiwanese cuisine it is most commonly served up as a rather bland stir fried veg. Nothing wrong with that, as the sweet flavored flesh of the bottle gourd is lightly refreshing, if not over seasoned.

The bottle gourd is so-called because while the young fruit is tender and delicious, it becomes so hard and fibrous as it matures that it can be hollowed out to serve as a storage vessel, and in some parts of the world, this is its primary function. It can also be turned into a musical instrument. In this respect it is similar to the sponge gourd, which can be eaten when young, but when left to mature on the vine, can then be dried and turned into loofahs.

It should be noted that the bottle gourd is sometimes also called a calabash, but it is unrelated to the fruit of the calabash tree, which confusingly is also used as a storage vessel, but does not have the same culinary advantages.

The bottle gourd, it should also be noted, comes in a variety of shapes, the most iconic being a fruit with twin bulges and a slender waist, used as a symbol of health and long life in Chinese religious iconography.

You are more likely to find bottle gourds in elongated shapes, rather like a thick Lebanese aubergine, or a pear-like shape rather like that of a pomelo. The flesh is a dense white with seeds barely visible in a slightly spongy center. For its stir fry preparation it is generally roughly julienned. The firm mottled green skin can be shaved off easily with a knife and there is no need to remove the seeds, as the whole mass of white flesh is edible.

The bottle gourd, so useful in summer, is from the standpoint of Chinese medicinal lore, also a sovereign remedy for many of the ills of the hot weather, helping to cool the body and keep it well hydrated. It is low in calories and rich in good dietary fiber, providing a sense of satiety, along with a solid payload of vitamins and minerals, without adding significantly to our caloric intake. It has all the usual antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are so beloved of nutritionists.

But ultimately, the main appeal of the bottle gourd is that of the wide variety of melons and gourds that make their appearance during the heat of summer and the fact that it has an easily accessible taste and texture. My own barometer for measuring such things is how easy it is to get children to eat it, and the bottle gourd scores high, generally more readily consumed by children than other summer gourds such as sponge gourd and bitter gourd, both excellent foods but which might be seen as challenging on the textural or flavor fronts.

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