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Silk Squash

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 20 and 35

One of a large number of squash, all called gua and in the Cucurbitaceae family, this particular one is si gua luo. It has several names in English besides its most common one of silk squash. Some of them include cloth gourd, towel gourd, vegetable sponge, silk melon, and luffa. Many folks see a resemblance to a fancy back-rubbing sponge in their bathroom. They should, because these wonderful devices are made from dried older specimens. Others either see or know a few of its many fresh cousins including wax gourd, botanically known as Benincasa hispada, bitter melon whose botanical name is Mornordica charantia, and the bottle gourd with the botanical name of Lagenaria siceraria.

The Chinese have a particular fondness for silk squash because it is marvelous, mild, and as its name says, silky, too. It tastes delicate, is a mite sweet, and is very soft. Women eat lots of it because Traditional Chinese Medical doctors (TCM) prescribe it for many female conditions. Toothless older women love it because it can be macerated with their gums. However, TCM doctors recommendation or not, this delicious veggie tastes so good that is why everyone loves it.

Large tracts of silk squash are grown in Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Every province can raise this vegetable. However, some must do so in a hothouse because their growing season is short. And each and every province has at least one dish featuring this vegetable or one of its relatives. In Guangzhou, for example, they love it prepared with dried shrimp. In Hunan, they make it in a dish with dried clams and chili peppers. In Hong Kong, there is a delicious rendition with cut-up fried crullers and golden mushrooms. Once when there, we had it served looking just like a lotus flower wrapped in its own leaf. Both of these dishes are called Silk Squash and Mushrooms and how surprised we were that they looked so different but tasted virtually identical.

In Beijing, we were served a super silk squash soup made with lots of black mushrooms, scallions, and bamboo shoots. That wonderful dish stands out in our collective memories. So does a soup consumed in Fujian made with silk squash, an unknown green, some pork, scallions, and something that tasted like pickling spices. Little known outside of China, both of these soups came with the cooked leaves of the slk squash. In a small northern city whose name is buried in the brain, we savored these same leaves stir-fried.

The most common silk squash comes ribbed or not; and it is easy to tell them apart. When cutting Luffa acutangula across the narrow way, that is the ribbed variety and when cutting the one called Luffa cylindrica, that one has a smooth skin. It also tends to be shorter, and it can get more round as it matures. There are other relatives that grow with or without ribs and Retinervus luffae fructus and Fasciculus vascularis luffae grow both ways.

For generations, the Chinese people have eaten the fruit, as the squash is correctly called, and they have eaten the leaves. The stems are rarely cooked but they are used medicinally. Those fruits grow to become sponges, and those are intended to be used medicinally, are harvested in the fall after the vines have withered. Late spring and summer are the main season when people pick the edible silk squash. However, so many are grown in hothouses that they really are available all year long.

In the Chinese philosophic dichotomy, silk squash is considered neutral and sweet. It is a valuable medicinal that TCM doctors prescribe to young women to increase their menstrual flow. They recommend it to pregnant and lactating women to assure adequate breast milk. They also suggest it to people of all ages for pain relief associated with breast abscess.

The Chinese believe that silk squash expels wind, invigorates lung, stomach, and liver channels, and helps when recovering from traumatic injuries. It is a valuable expectorant and an aid for relieving migraine headaches. For these excruciating headaches, it is best prepared with duck eggs. Some recommendations include using it alone or made into a decoction to neutralize poisons. One ancient printed source suggested drying it by the fire until crisp and then grinding it into a powder. That, they say, taken twice each day, is good for relieving lumbago.

The most common variety of silk squash has eight sharp ridges that run down its length. They need to be removed before cooking. The easiest way is to use a vegetable peeler. After the tough ribs are removed, cut this or any silk squash into four sections and cut each of these in half the long way. Next, angle-cut these strips into pieces about an inch or so in length. They are now ready to be cooked. Keep in mind that when cooking this vegetable, less is better. That means just gently steam, stew, or stir-fry them.

Because some TCM doctors advise that this vegetable is a purgative, do not to eat too much of it. How much is too much? No one says, but less than a cup may be a good amount. One of those who proffered this advice tells us that when using a fat or old one, be more restrictive with your intake. Another reminds that refrigerating this squash increases its purgative effect. Not all TCM practitioners agree. As a matter of fact, we have never seen this as written advice but have seen the recommendation not to eat it raw as that might cause stomach problems. Blanching maintains its bright green color, but blanch or not, and we do not, here are some recipes to enjoy this delicious vegetable.
Silk Squash, Sichuan Style
24 small clams, covered in warm water to rest for half an hour
2 silk squash, peeled
2 small dried chili peppers, seeded and minced fine
1/4 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
1. Put the clams in a bowl and the bowl in a steamer. Steam them until they open then remove them from their shells setting aside 1/4 cup clam juice. Rinse the clams with boiling water to be sure any remaining sand is removed.
2. Cut the silk squash across the narrow way to make four sections about four to six inches in length. Cut each of these pieces in half the long way, then angle cut each strip and put them into another bowl.
3. Steam the silk squash for eight minutes, then drain.
4. Mix all ingredients including the clam juice and refrigerate for at least two but not more than four hours. Then, stir and serve.
Green and Black Soup
1 silk squash, ribs removed by peeling them
1/4 pound pork loin, cut into thin slices, then each slice into thin strips
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon water chestnut flour
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon wolfberries, optional
1 scallion, mince white part and slice the green thinly
1 black mushroom, soaked in warm water twenty minutes and slices thinly
1/2 cup thinly sliced bamboo shoots
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1. Cut the silk squash across the narrow way to make four pieces. Cut each of these in half the long way and then angle cut each strip.
2. Mix pork strips with wine, water chestnut flour and white pepper and marinate for ten minutes.
3. Heat broth, but do not bring it to the boil. Add silk squash, the pork mixture, wolfberries, the white part of the scallions, the mushrooms, and the bamboo shoots and simmer for fifteen minutes. Add scallion tops, simmer another minute, then serve.
Silk Squash, Fried Crullers, and Golden Mushrooms
2 silk squash
2 fried crullers, cut into half-inch cubes
1/2 cup corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1/2 cup golden mushrooms
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold chicken broth
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Cut the silk squash across the narrow way to make four sections. Cut each of these in half the long way and angle cut each strip.
2. Heat oil. Fry cruller cubes until crisp, then remove and drain them. Reserve one tablespoon of the oil.
3. Heat reserved oil and fry the ginger half a minute. Then add the silk squash and one cup of water. Simmer this for five minutes.
4. Add the crullers, mushrooms, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar and salt and simmer another two minutes.
5. Mix chicken broth and cornstarch, bring the silk squash mixture to the boil and add it. Cook until the liquid clears or is totally absorbed, about one minute, then serve.
Silk Squash with Nuts
1 silk squash
2 fresh lily bulbs, petals separated, rinsed, and dried
1/2 cup pine nuts (or olive nuts--these are from their pits, or cooked gingko nuts, these latter two items need be cut in half)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 small green hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 small dried red hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Cut the silk squash across the narrow way to make four sections. Cut each of these in half the long way and angle cut each strip.
2. Blanch the silk squash, lily petals, and the nuts in boiling water for one minute, then drain.
3. Mix sesame oil, salt and pepper, and red and green hot pepper pieces.
4. Heat corn oil and fry ginger until fragrant, then add hot pepper mixture and fry another minute, being careful not to let them burn.
5. Add silk squash, lily bulb petal pieces and the nuts and stir-fry for three minutes before adding the cornstarch mixture. Bring to the boil and cook until the sauce clears, then serve.

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