The Winter Melon – who named this thing?

I tend to make impulse purchases at Asian grocery stores. Most recently it was a 2 pound precut hunk of Winter Melon (Benincasa hispida, also called wax gourd, ash gourd, petha (India), and kundol (Philippines)). (another photo is here).

The species has been cultivated in China for over 2000 years, and is thought to have evolved in South Asia. The name “winter melon” is misleading, as it is neither winter-exclusive nor a melon. The appearance of the skin and the inner flesh have some similarity to melon (watermelon and honeydew, respectively), but the flavor and scent, however, are less melon-like and more reminiscent of cucumber or summer squash. It is actually a gourd that grows year round. The “winter” name might refer to the frosty bloom on the skin, or to its long shelf life (months if not cut open). In China they are considered to be a “cooling” food, and thus ideal for eating on hot and sticky days. In Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, there is a description of the winter melon as a dessert in India, which is sweetened and crystalized, and “looked like the rectangular tan erasers we used in school.”

Using a recipe from From the Earth (by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo), I made a winter melon soup. I prepared the melon by peeling it, then grating the flesh in my food processor. In a large saucepan, I sauteed some shallots in peanut oil for a few minutes, added some diced rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, stirred, then immediately added the winter melon. After a few stirs, I poured in vegetable stock, a little dry sherry, and a few big hunks of ginger. I cooked this mixture for 40 minutes, covered. At the last minute, I added roasted sesame oil and white pepper.

Winter melon doesn’t have a lot of flavor, so the mushrooms and sesame oil dominated the soup, but the melon provided a pleasing background nonetheless. Using fresh shiitake mushrooms would have been a much better match to the subtle flavor of the winter melon.

Perhaps this winter I will give it another try. But next time maybe I’ll call it ash gourd or wax gourd to get in the vegetable mood.

For more information, consult Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider.

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