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Kitchen Knowledge about Winter Melon

by Irving Beilin Chang

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(2) page(s): 12 and 19

When one thinks of melon, what comes to mind is a vision of summertime and tasting a nice cool sweet red watermelon or an orange fragrant cantaloupe or even a mint-green sumptuous mouth-watering honeydew melon. The Chinese wintermelon is none of these. Its flesh is white, it is quite tasteless, and it is never eaten raw. The unique characteristics of this Chinese melon that has no distinct taste or flavor of its own are, that on cooking, it takes on and enhances any taste or flavor imparted to it.

The Chinese call this melon a wintermelon because in a warm climate where no freezing occurs, it can be grown year-round, even in winter. Its weight can vary from five to fifty pounds and its outer skin is green or sometimes a frosty green. After harvesting, wintermelon can be stored at ambient temperatures for a few months. It is often available at Chinese grocers in slices four to six inches wide by sixteen to eighteen inches long. According to Chinese medical treatises, it is an herb and known to be beneficial for the treatment of mild urinary tract problems. It is high in Vitamin B and in dietary fiber.

Wintermelon is often served with Virginia ham in a soup, because it takes on the delicate ham flavor and eliminates the ham's harsh smoky taste. Chinese cooks in this country use Jing-Hua ham and Virginia ham interchangeably because both hams not only taste quite similar to each other, but their methods of preservation and the climates they are cured in are also similar.

In home cooking, because of the melon's medicinal value, we often include the skin during the preparation, however before serving, the skin is discarded because it is too tough to eat.

Cubes of wintermelon can also be stuffed with ham or a mixture of chopped pork, mushrooms and/or shrimp, and then steamed as an entree. They can also be candied and served as finger food at special Chinese festivals or at a tea.

In Chinese food, one soup that stands out is the Winter Melon Casserole or Dung Gwa Tsung. Starting with a chicken soup base, eight or ten additional ingredients are added to a melon whose top has been cut off and saved and whose seeds and pulp have been removed. The wintermelon is then steamed until the flesh or white part of the melon is done and one can scoop that out to serve with the soup. Since the melon itself is the container or vessel that the soup is cooked in, the flavor of the soup is mellow and delicious, and a wonderful experience for anyone tasting it.

For lack of an accurate word, I have called it a casserole, but in Western cooking, there really is no good translation of the soup's name. Because of the elaborate preparation and the long cooking time required, orders for this soup need to be placed with restaurants at least 24 hours before it is needed. And, because it can be a complicated preparation, particularly if they carve the outside of the melon, not all places are willing or able to make it.

Two recipes for wintermelon, taken fromm An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking that Wonona and I and the Kutschers wrote in 1970, follow for your consideration.

Winter Melon Casserole
1 wintermelon (about the size of a volley ball)
5 dried mushrooms
1 chicken breast
6 medium shrimp
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 quarts chicken broth, brought to the boil
1/4 cup bamboo shoots
4 slices ginger root
1 Tablespoons Virginia ham slivers
salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut off the top one and a half inches from the top of the wintermelon Save it because it will be used as the lid of the melon when cooking it. Remove seeds and spongy pulp from inside of the melon and then place the melon in a large bowl so that it is well supported in an upright position.
2. Soak the mushrooms in hot water for fifteen minutes, then squeeze out the water and cut them into thin slices.
3. Bone and slice the chicken breast.
4. Shell and devein the shrimp, then dice them into one-quarter-inch pieces.
5. Combine chicken breast, shrimp, and cornstarch and mix well.
6. Place a heat-proof bowl with the melon in it into a steamer. Then pour boiling chicken broth into the melon.
7. Add bamboo shoots, soaked drained mushrooms, ginger, and ham and cover the melon with its top. Next cover the steamer and steam this for about four hours or until the melon flesh is soft. Check freqently to see that there is water in the bottom section of the steamer.
8. Remove the lid of the melon and add the chicken/shrimp mixture and the salt and pepper. Replace the melon and steamer lids and steam an additional fifteen minutes.
9. Remove the bowl from the steamer, take off the melon lid, and serve.
Steamed Winter Melon with Virginia Ham
1 pound slice of wintermelon
1/2 pound of cooked Virginia ham
3 slices of fresh ginger, minced
2 scallions, minced
Chinese parsley (optional)
1. Slice the wintermelon into one and a quarter inch square pieces. Remove the peel. Then slit each piece of melon but do not cut all the way through.
2. Slice the ham thinly then cut into one inch by one inch and a quarter inch strips. Slip the ham strips into the slits in the wintermelon, then place these on a deep platter and sprinkle with ginger, scallions, and Chinese parsley (also known as cilantro).
3. Steam the prepared wintermelon on a heat-proof platter until the melon is translucent, about twenty minutes. Serve hot.

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