Vegetation Profile: Winter Melon

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The winter melon (Chinese: 冬瓜; pinyin: dōngguā, Japanese 冬瓜(とうがん)tougan, also called white gourd or ash gourd, is a vine grown for its very large fruit, eaten as a vegetable. The fruit is fuzzy when young. By maturity, the fruit loses its hairs and develops a waxy coating, giving rise to the name wax gourd, and providing a long shelf life. The melon may grow as large as 1-2 meters in length. The word “melon” in the name is somewhat misleading, as the fruit is not sweet.

Originally cultivated in Southeast Asia, the winter melon is now widely grown in East Asia and South Asia as well. The shoots, tendrils, and leaves of the plant may also be eaten as greens.

I saw these lovely winter melons or bí đao at the market in Vinh Long during my trip to the Mekong Delta a month or so ago. My favorite bí đao preparation is canh bí, which consists of minced shrimp and pork in a sweet broth that is eaten with steamed rice. The soup’s color is a translucent, but brilliant orange that is a result of bloody shrimp heads.

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