Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bottle Gourd (lauki, opo squash): Recipes & How to Eat

What can I say? My desire to try new raw ingredients has led me yet again to a new vegetable I've never tried before: Opo Squash. I picked it up on a run to the Ranch 99 store, which carries foods used in a variety of Asian cuisines.

As you can see, this is no small squash to mess with -- it's about a foot long and at least a good 4 or 5 pounds. Gigantic in terms of the closest common vegetable that comes to mind - a zucchini - but relatively underweight compared to, say, a newborn.

Upon bringing the opo squash, or bottle gourd, home with my other haul of obscure (to me, at least) foods, I quickly got to work learning about it and selecting a recipe to try (below)!

Other Names for Bottle Gourd

If you're looking to buy a bottle gourd, be aware that it goes by many names, including "calabash" and "long melon." The varieties sold in Chinese groceries are often labeled "opo squash," and sometimes "opu" and "upo". Chinese groceries also sell a variety called "Moa Gua" or "hairy squash," which is darker mottled green and covered in small hairs. In Indian groceries, bottle gourd may sell under the names "lauki" and "sorakaaya." Italian markets may sell the squash under the name "cucuzza." The fruits come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- The type pictured in this post is an opo squash from a Chinese market.

Flavor and Texture

Each variety has unique qualities --  I've only tried the squash pictured above, sold as an "opo squash" at a Chinese market, so I can only speak to the qualities of this variety.

The opo squash I tried was light green, heavy, shaped like a large zucchini, and smooth. The skin was thin, akin to a zucchini. The flesh was like a zucchini, too, but chewier and more dense, with a flavor akin to a cross between a cucumber and zucchini. The center flesh, where the seeds were, is spongier and the young seeds are crisp and slightly sweet.

Selecting and Storing

Choose a firm, heavy, smooth, unblemished squash with no cuts, bruises, or diseased areas. Store it in the refrigerator for a longer shelf life.

How to Eat Bottle Gourd

Calabash can be eaten as a vegetable, similar to summer squash, when young. The leaves, shoots, and tendrils of the plant can also be eaten. A typical preparation in India is a chickpea and gourd dish called lauki channa. Common dishes in China include stir fries and soups. In Central America, the seeds are sometimes toasted, ground, and used as an ingredient in a sweet drink known as horchata.

Other Uses

Calabash, when mature, are dried and used for their tough outer shell, which can be made into storage containers (including liquid storage), utensils, instruments, and many other items.

Bottle Gourd Recipes

Bengali Vegetarian Bottle Gourd Stew

I made the following tasty recipe with the opo squash pictured in this post. Here's the recipe I used as a template, though I didn't follow it to the word. Soon, I'll write up the modified version that I made along with more details about how it turned out, and will link to it from here.  It was good! Here's a photo of the final dish:

Other Calabash Recipes

I didn't have enough gourd left over to make more than one recipe, but these recipes below are on my future to-try list:

Hopefully some of you are feeling inspired to try something new in the vegetable department! Here's to variety!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jujube Fruits (Red Dates): About and How to Eat

Jujubes! No, not the candy...

Welcome to another episode of fun, weird fruits! While people who shop in Chinese markets will likely be familiar with jujube fruits, most of those who stick to the typical North American grocery stores won't have encountered them.

Jujube fruits have been cultivated in China for thousands of years. They grow on a deciduous tree that sports shiny oval leaves, naturally drooping limbs and thorny branches.

Other Names: Jujubes a.k.a Red Dates a.k.a. ....

Common names include jujube, Chinese date, Chinese apple, tsao, Korean date and Indian date. Although jujube goes by many names including "Red Date," it is not a date, and is not related to the medjool and deglet dates you'll see in grocery stores. The name Red Date comes from the fruit's similarity in appearance and flavor, when ripe and dried, to dates.

Jujube Flavor When Fresh and When Dried

There are over 700 varieties of jujubes in China, and about 40 varieties in the U.S.

When eaten fresh, varieties developed for drying will have a dry, mealy texture and won't be very sweet. But varieties produced for fresh eating will have a crisp texture like an apple, and will be sweet and tasty; Unfortunately, varieties for fresh eating have only recently (1990's) been introduced into the U.S. and are not very common yet, so they will be more difficult to find.

Dried jujubes have a taste similar to that of a dried date. For more on the history of jujube cultivars in the US, this is a great resource:

Size of Fruits

The size of jujube fruits varies depending on the variety. In stores, they're commonly oval shaped or roundish and about two inches long. Larger varieties exist, including 'Li' (3-ounce fruits), 'Shanxi Li' and 'Chico GI-7-62' (round fruit with flattened bottom).

Selecting Ripe Jujubes

Young fruit is light green. As it ripens, it grows more yellow on color, and reddish-brown spots appear on the skin. A fully ripe jujube is reddish-brown all over and slightly soft and wrinkled. For fresh eating, most people consume jujubes before the fruit become fully red, soft, and wrinkled: the fruit will be crisp, lightly sweet, and apple-like in texture. Store jujubes in the refrigerator.

How to Eat Jujubes

Jujubes are eaten fresh, dried, pickled, candied, made into the jujube equivalent of apple butter, made into syrups for sweetening teas and dishes, and pitted and preserved in liquor for use in cooking. You can use fresh jujubes in place of fresh apples in recipes, and you can use dried jujubes in place of raisins or dates in most baked goods.

Jujube Recipe Ideas

Candied Jujube Recipe

2 lbs dried jujube
3 1/3 cups cold water
3 2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp corn starch

1. Wash and drain jujubes. Prick each jujube a few times with a fork. Mix cold water, sugar, and cornstarch, and bring to a boil. Add jujubes. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and refrigerate overnight.
2. In the morning, return the mixture to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Then, remove jujubes from the syrup and place on foil-lined pans. Place the pans in a 275F oven and bake for 2 to 5 hours or until dry to the touch.
3. Save the remaining jujube-infused water for the syrup recipe below.

Jujube Syrup Recipe

Place the remaining jujube liquid from the Candied Jujube Recipe in an uncovered pot and boil until it has reduced to about 1 1/3 cup.

    More Fresh Jujube Recipes to Check Out

    More Dried Jujube Recipes to Check Out

    Where to Find

    Visit your local Chinese grocery, if you have one, and keep your eyes peeled for these treats! You may also spot them at a local farmer's market if you live in California, Texas, or another state with a warm climate. You can also try growing a jujube tree yourself if you live in a hot, dry growing climate like that of Texas. The plant is incredibly hardy and thrives on little rain and high temperatures.

     Hope this inspires some of you to hunt down a few jujubes yourselves!