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Ian’s Table: Proud to be bland

Winter melon looks almost as bland as it tastes, but this does not mean it does not have plenty to contribute in the kitchen

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Steamed pork with winter melon is a classic dish that allows the lightly marinated meat to subtly add its flavor to the winter melon without totally overwhelming its delicate flavor.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Wax gourd is a staple of the Taiwanese countryside. It is a huge, heavy fruit that manages to survive the worst that Taiwan’s heat and humidity can throw at it, seemingly impervious to pests and neglect. This hardiness, ironically, has diminished its worth in the eyes of culinary connoisseurs; this and its particularly bland taste, that requires a light touch to make the most of.

The wax gourd is more commonly called winter melon (冬瓜) in Taiwan, a direct translation from the Chinese, and this name persists despite the wax gourd not being any kind of melon, and is more closely related to various varieties of squash. In some quarters it is referred to as the ash pumpkin, but its flesh is also unlike that of most squash, and is closer to that of a marrow, to which, as a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, it is related.

The wax gourd rubs familiar shoulders with squash and zucchini, cucumbers and even watermelons, and like all these vegetables (and fruit), it is a remarkable source of nutrition. One advantage that it has over many of its relatives is that it has a remarkably long “shelf life” after harvest, its waxy coating providing a strong protective layer that allows it to be stored with minimal fuss for months without deterioration. Its disadvantage is its size, with the gourd routinely weighing in at 15kg and its size up to 80cm in length, a surfeit for all but the very largest of extended families. In traditional markets, winter melon is usually sold in wheel-shaped slices (a good format for the dish of steamed pork with winter melon, see recipe).

I first discovered winter melon in the form of candy. My mother used to purchase the sticks of melon, like thick-cut French fries in size, thickly coated in sugar, from the Chinese medicine shop. She used these sticks of translucent melon crusted in white sugar to sweeten chrysanthemum tea. It is used in similar fashion for a variety of Chinese herbal preparations, supposedly providing a soothing element to soften the edges of aggressive teas. The sugar coated melon could be eaten before it ever saw a pot of tea and I always regarded it as a great treat, though a sadly unsophisticated one, which was soon replaced by the multicolored extravagances from the candy store.

Candied winter melon seems to have largely disappeared from regular culinary usage, but I remember the firm gelatinous flesh and crusty sugar coating as something rather special; though picking some up on a whim from a local Chinese medicine shop some months ago, I found the flavor rather disappointing. Perhaps it is best not to test childhood memories against present reality.

Another traditional preparation that continues with some degree of popularity is winter melon tea (冬瓜茶), in which the winter melon is cooked together with sugar for long hours to produce a concentrate to which water can be added to make a distinctive fruit punch, which is much praised for being a cooling drink during the summer months. Often the concentrate is dehydrated and sold as bricks or cubes, making this an easy drink to prepare at home and it is often sold by cold drinks and herbal tea vendors around Taiwan, where it is regarded as something of a national specialty.

Winter melon still makes a frequent appearance in light soups, perhaps the most definitive being winter melon and clams flavored with ginger. The name of the dish provides an exhaustive list of the ingredients, with only water not being mentioned by name. If clams of high quality are used, and the seasoning is managed with an experienced hand, this soup can be an absolutely delicious adjunct to a rich Chinese meal.

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