WINTER TREATS: A Summer Tonic for Winter

by Alice Huang

I am fascinated by the Winter Melon; its waxy, dark-green skin and white, dewy flesh. When I first came to know the Winter Melon, it was either shaped in a circular section like a car wheel or shapeless with soft, translucent flesh hanging off its hard skin.

When my sister, brother and I were growing up in Hong Kong, the Winter Melon had a sizeable role in our lives. Cooked along with pork, dried scallops (瑶柱/干贝) and shiitake mushrooms (冬菇/香菇), it was one of my Mom’s go-to soups. Being a full-time housewife and a Cantonese soup queen, Mom used to cook different soups all year round, for different reasons, for every reason, for no reason.

Later, I found out that Winter Melon is nothing shaped like a car wheel but is in fact of a large oblong shape, and I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. I love everything that’s large oblong in shape (think giant pandas).

Image by: Judgefloro

One day after school, I tagged along with my Mom and Ms Six, my Grandma’s cook to the street food market in North Point. They were shopping for, adults, children and all, a 38-people-dinner (a regular affair at Grandma’s). There, I saw and touched for the first time a whole Winter Melon. I gasped. So big! So green! So heavy! No wonder we only ever bought in sections, we would never be able to finish the whole thing, I thought to myself. But that time, we bought and took the whole melon home.

Winter Melon is known by many other names. In Hong Kong, we call it Dong Gua (冬瓜) in Cantonese. In India, it is called Safed Kaddu, Petha and Lauki; in Japan,Togan; and in Thailand, Fak. Other names in English are Wax Gourd, White Gourd and Ash Gourd. It is the fruit of a climbing plant called Benincasa Hispida. Grown in the summer but can be stored throughout the winter, it can be consumed in any season and it is used most extensively in Chinese cuisine.

Mom said we should pick sections where the rim between the skin and the flesh is as bright grass-green coloured as possible. That’s a section from a good and fresh Dong Gua, she said. If you were to buy a whole one, always choose a solid and heavy one, she added.

I remember being excited at the prospect of watching Ms Six prepare the Winter Melon for dinner that night. It’s so ginormous, how would she be cooking it? How enormous a pot would she need? But alas, I was too distracted and instead went to play cooking cucumbers on toy pans and pots with my cousin.

Dinner came and the huge melon had disappeared into a soup that was so fragrant, delicious and soothing that I skipped rice and drank three bowls of it. Ms Six even served me an extra portion of the white, translucent flesh as a reward for going shopping with her and helping (feebly) to carry the melon home.

Ms Six has sadly passed away but her recipe and my Mom’s are the same. Here it is, the recipe will serve six people but I must remark on their unusual way of measuring ingredients; it is imprecise and requires imagination and best judgement:

Winter Melon: a section of a thickness equivalent to the length of your palm. Wash, cut into large chunks, keep the skin but discard the seeds

Lean fillet of pork: cut into 1-inch cubes. Cubes should pile up to the brim of a Chinese rice bowl

Dried shiitake mushrooms: large sized, x 6, soak overnight and cut into quarters when softened

Dried scallops: large sized x 2, soak overnight

Bonus ingredient: Yunnan ham, dice into tiny cubes, a handful

Put all ingredients into a pot, including the water that was used to soak the dried mushrooms and dried scallops. Add 10 Chinese rice bowl of water, bring to the boil, lower heat, cook for 2 hours and make sure that the liquid is gently bubbling at all times. The soup is ready when the liquid reduces and thickens, and the flesh of the melon chunks is soft, translucent and hanging off the skin. Add salt to taste.

Image by: Alpha

This soup is believed to cool down the internal heat in your body, so it is often drunk in the summer — but if you tend to fortify yourself for the winter with what the Chinese believes to be “heaty” foods like spicy hot, fried or deep-fried foods, your body will thank you for providing it a sanctuary with this detoxifying and cooling tonic.

Watch out for our next article on another winter treat. It is an ingredient that is also oblong in shape, somewhat under-appreciated but is in fact packed full of character. In the meantime, if you want to share a recipe or pay a tribute to a favourite food ingredient for the winter, do send it to the editors.

These recipes are part of FOOD+ journal’s “Side Dishes”, more to come.