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Winter Melon

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Fall Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(3) page(s): 24 - 25, and 27

Many think this food a vegetable, but it really is a fruit, and as other Chinese foods, or any foods in many countries, wintermelon, also written winter melon, has its share of names in English and Chinese. Often a challenge locating food information becasue one needs to know this fruit is also called ash gourd, ash pumpkin, white gourd, winter gourd, white melon, East melon, ox spleen, yellow climber, May bushel, preserving melon, and other names.

Ancient, white, fleshy, spongy and pulpy, the Chinese most often call it dong gua. Many believe this big dark green item begins life with a fuzzy exterior, and as it ages gains a thick waxy one. Often called mao gua when young, some wonder if it is related to dong gua or a variant? Not everyone agrees and many say it is a variety of wax gourd better known as 'jointed gourd.' No botanist, we do know it is a fruit as are tomatoes, cucumbers, and other foods, and that the Chinese also call the hairy one jie gua, hu lu, and sometimes hu gua.

This food is as popular today as it was during late Han Dynasty times (202 BCE - 220 CE). Trusting written records, we know this Cucurbitacaceae appears in the Chinese Materia Medica circa 202 - 220 CE and was then called bai gua or white melon. It is an annual and does have egg-shaped seeds. To add to confusions about it, botanically, it is most often but not always known as Benicasa hispida.

Not related to the watermelon other than it is in the Cucurbitaceae family, this cousin can be but rarely is eaten raw; and then only when quite young. Most often cooked and stir-fried, it can be braised, stuffed, pickled, and preserved with sugar or another sweetener. Winter melons mature at about three or more months, are best when five or more months on the vine, and can weigh twenty pounds or more before picked. The name of this fruit indicates one can keep it in a cool place all winter, and Chinese families and markets do just that. When eaten young, its fuzzy coat needs peeling and discarding. When old and waxy, if not used as its own cooking container, its coat needs removing, too.

Years ago, winter melons were commonly preserved in honey; now they are preserved in one or more sugars, in salt solutions, and in other solid and liquid items. We once read they were on sale in Kaifeng in Northern Song Dynasty times (960 - 1127 CE) before and when that city was China's capital city. Then, before then and since, one reads of them preserved in sugar or salt, honey, salt and vinegar, vinegar and wine, or just in plain vinegar.

In one of China's first cookbooks, Madame Wu's Recipe Book whose Chinese title is Wu Shih Chung Hui Lu, this food item is very popular in soups or as a container for one of them. Perhaps readers may recall one called Winter Melon Pond. My husband requested it served at my seventy-fifth birthday party. It made an issue's cover and is on page two of this article. Check out that super meal and super soup I did not cook. I have no place to make six simultaneously, as were needed that day. I have prepared one for guests on a few occasions, my kitchen can do no more than one at a time.

Traditional Chinese medical doctors (TCM) recommend winter melon and have for years for people with diabetes, those with kidney inflammation, inadequate urine flow, inflamed breasts, various rashes, cloudy urine, and if a patient is poisoned from eating fish and are allergic to fish and seafood.

Chinese cooks love these vine-growing fruits and cook them in a plethora of ways. As annual creepers, they have yellow flowers. Their fruits can be oblong with rounded ends. The Chinese love them made into a candy, particularly as snacks around Chinese New Year. At that season, one can find them as white sugared squares or rectangles either loose or in eight-section gift boxes. They are delicious, even more addictive than potato chips.

Introduced to China, probably from Southeast Asia, perhaps Thailand or Java, this magazine wrote of an interesting use they have in 'wife cakes' also known as 'sweetheart cakes.' That article advised that a wife sold herself into slavery making a cake filled with sweetened winter melon. It became so popular, her husband was able to make several and get her back by earning enough money after selling many of them.

Winter melon was featured in Flavor and Fortune in 1995 in Volume 2(2). Additionally, two soup recipes appeared in Volumes 8(2) and 13(3), and another with tofu fish cake in the Letters to the Editor column in Volume 19(1). Check these and other recipes out in the various Index listings on the website www.flavorandfortune.com where other information exists as do other recipes. Also seek out other dishes in cookbooks. And do try those at the end of this article.

One does not need to buy the entire many-pound melon, just a large already cut piece. See how many different ways there are to use it; you will be glad you did. Several wrote that they enjoyed many of the recipes for this fruit, we hope you and they like the additional ones below.
Winter Melon Pumpkin Chips
1/2 pound fresh winter melon, peeled and sliced into one-eight inch thin slices, each about an inch square
1/2 pound fresh pumpkin, peeled and sliced into one-eighth-inch thin slices, each about an inch square
1/2 cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon white and black sesame seeds
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Toss winter melon and pumpkin pieces in the flour, sugar, and salt. Let them rest for ten minutes, then toss them again. Discard any extra flour mixture.
2. Heat oil in a deep pot or wok, and put about one half of the vegetable pieces in to deep fry. When tan and crisp, remove and drain them on paper towels. Repeating with the remaining slices.
3. Immediately or when almost ready to serve, put the vegetable chips on a rack on a baking sheet and into a 500 degree oven for five minutes, then into a serving bowl.
Wintermelon and Seafood Casserole
1 five-pound winter melon
20 dried lotus seeds, soaked for one hour or until soft
3 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, their stems discarded, and cut into slivers
1/4 cup Yunnan ham. Slivered
1 chicken liver, cut into thin strips and blanched one minute
2 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup crab meat, cartilage removed, cut into pieces
6 shrimp, peels and veins discarded, each cut into two pieces, the long way
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1. Cut top off the melon, seed it, and put it into a serving bowl and steam it with the melon cover for twenty minutes.
2. Remove melon cover and add the lotus seeds and the black mushrooms and ½ cup boiling water and steam for twenty minutes not returning the melon top to the steamer.
3. Add ham, chicken livers, stock, soy sauce, rice wine, and salt and the melon top and steam another hour and fifteen minutes without the melon cover. 4. Add crab meat and shrimp and cover the melon with the melon cover and steam another twenty minutes. Add the sesame oil and bring the melon with its contents and its cover to the table, then serve contents and some melon flesh to each diner.
Meat and Wintermelon Soup
1 or 2 dried scallops
5 Chinese black mushrooms
1/4 cup smoked ham
1/2 cup chicken
2 chicken livers
2 chicken stomachs, thick parts removed and discarded
1 thousand year egg, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup shrimp, shells and vein discarded
1/2 cup canned or cooked bamboos shoots
3 slices fresh ginger, peeled
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
5 pound winter melon, top removed, and seeded
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon salt
Preparation: 1. Steam scallops for twenty minutes or until soft, then cool and tear into thin shreds.
2. Soak mushrooms for twenty minutes, discard the stems, and slice thin.
3. Slice thinly the ham, chicken, chicken livers and stomachs, then blanch each separately for one minute.
4. Cut bamboo shoots and ginger into thin slices or strips.
5. Steam winter melon in its serving bowl for twenty minutes with its cover on.
6. Put all meats, vegetables, and stock into the winter melon, and add the wine and salt. Cover and steam another thirty minutes, then put the bowl on the table and serve soup, its contents, and some of the winter melon flesh to each diner.
Stir-fried Wintermelon
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup almonds, blanched and peeled
1 large carrot, shredded
1 small daikon, peeled and cut into strips
1 small celeriac, peeled and cut into small strips
1 pound winter melon, peeled and cut into small strips
1 cup savoy cabbage, cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sa cha sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 scallion, slivered
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1. Heat vegetable oil and stir-fry almonds until lightly tanned, then remove them from the oil and set aside on paper towels.
2. Add carrot, daikon, and celeriac strips and stir fry for three minutes, then add winter melon and cabbage strips and stir-fry another one minute more until cabbage is wilted at which time add ginger root and stir fry an additional minute.
3. Add sa cha and oyster sauces and the scallion, and stir-fry half a minute before transferring everything to a pre-heated bowl.
4. Top with sesame seeds, and serve.
Braised Wintermelon and Tofu Fish Cake
3 pounds winter melon
1 package (9 squares) tofu fish cake
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons shrimp roe, separated
3 cups chicken stock
1. Peel winter melon and cut it into thin slices.
2. Blanch tofu fish cakes for one minute, drain, and cut each one into four diamond shaped pieces.
3. Heat vegetable oil in a wok or fry pan, and stir-fry winter melon pieces for two minutes, add salt and chicken stock and cover wok or fry pan and simmer for two minutes, until they are almost transparent, then remove from the heat for ten minutes.
4. Return to the heat, add tofu fish cake pieces and half the roe and boil until liquid reduced by half.
5. Remove to a serving bowl, put remaining roe on top, and serve.
Wintermelon and Egg Whites
1 pound winter or fuzzy melon, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
1 teaspoon fresh peeled ginger, coarsely grated
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon chicken fat or lard
2 shallots, peeled and minced
2 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one Tablespoon of cold water
4 egg whites, beaten until foamed and almost stiff
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1. Mix melon, ginger, and rice wine and set aside in a heat-proof bowl for fifteen minutes, then steam them in that bowl over boiling water for fifteen minutes more.
2. Heat chicken fat or lard and brown the shallots for three minutes until they start to caramelize.
3. Add melon to shallot mixture and the stock and bring to the boil, then add cornstarch mixture and stir until it thickens. Then add egg whites and the sesame oil, and stir for one minute. Then serve.

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