Cucurbit Family - bittermelon, wintermelon, moqua, sinqua, opo, kabocha, and snake gourd
Bittermelon - Mormodica charantia:a native of India, is a member of the Cucurbit family. It is usually grown on a trellis system and is roughly about the size of a zucchini, but warty. The only pests found attacking the plant in the Central Valley are parasitic root knot nematodes. Fruits are eaten while still green and before there is any color change. Bright orange fruits are saved for seed. Bitterness ( quinine content) increases with age of the fruit. Several varieties are available which can range from 3-4" in length to almost 12". Trellised. Warm season.
Salt reduces the bitterness. Slice lengthwise and stuff with pork or seafood and top with oyster sauce; or cut halves into ¼ inch chunks and add to meat/vegetable stir-fries. The young leaves and tips can be steamed.
Opo - Lagenaria siceraria:also called a type of bottle gourd, has large white flowers and may have originated in either Mexico or Egypt. Fruits are very smooth, hairless, and normally harvested when 10-12 inches long. This plant, like most other cucurbits, is susceptible to nematodes, aphids, leafhoppers, several viruses, spider mites, and a lepidopterous caterpillar that causes cosmetic damage on the fruit. Trellised. Warm season.
This squash is the equivalent of the Italian cucuzza. It is commonly used in soups and stir-fries. The taste is mild.
Smooth luffa - (Luffa cylindrica): Dishrag gourd (loofah) originated in India and was later taken to China. With the exception of the cosmetic damage from a caterpillar, it has the same pests as opo. Left to mature on the plant the squash will produce the familiar "Luffa sponge" found in stores and used as a dishrag or great back-scrubber (hence the name). Soak the light brown mature gourd in 10% bleach for 24 hours, then peel off the skin and allow dry. Trellised. Warm season.
Most of the luffa grown in the Central Valley is for the young squash like fruits. Slice Luffa into 1" pieces and stir-fry with shrimp in a tempura batter and cooked in oyster sauce; or simply stir-fry in butter by itself or with other vegetables. Be careful not to overcook as it will become mushy.
Angled Luffa - (Luffa actuangula): is very similar to the smooth luffa except that the actuangula seems somewhat more susceptible to spider mite attacks. Except for Chinese winter melon, all of the cucurbits discussed are trained on trellises to encourage straighter fruits, which can become more curved if allowed to grow on the ground. Warm season.
The quality of this squash as a sponge gourd is not as desirable, however, in stir fries and other foods it excels and does not become mushy as readily. It is sweeter and has a better flavor than zucchini. This type should be peeled, as the ridges are fairly hard. Most plantings will have both types of luffa for the varied tastes of consumers, but the popularity of angled luffa predominates.
Snake gourd - (Trichosanthes anguina): is a night-blooming vegetable squash with white blossoms. Usually a small stone is suspended from its apex to keep it growing straight and long. The genus Thichosanthes is Greek meaning "hair flower", which describes the fragrant and delicately fringed white corolla (petals).
The young fruits are cut into pieces and boiled. As the fruit ages, it becomes bitter. Like many other bitter fruits, the bitterness is viewed as a tonic in natural medicine.
Hairy Melon/Fuzzy Gourd - (Benincasa hispida var. chiehgua): This squash is little brother to the Chinese winter melon. Most often called Moqua, this squash is eaten in the immature stage as is opo/sinqua and before it has developed the white wax bloom on the skin. It has the same pest problems as angled luffa and is also trellised. Warm season.
As the name implies, it is quite hairy and will need to be peeled. It has a refreshing delicate flavor and is often included in stir-fries and soups. It can be stuffed with shrimp, pork, bamboo shoots, bok choy, and onions and mixed with soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil.
Chinese Winter Melon - (Benincasa hispida): Donqua melons usually weigh in excess of 30 pounds and are harvested when mature and have developed the white wax bloom on the skin. Because of its size, it is not trellised but allowed to spread over the ground. Like the other cucurbits, it is attacked by spider mites, aphids, nematodes, and viruses.
The mature melon can be stored for 3-4 months over the wintertime. The flavor is mild, white and is a main ingredient in chicken broth soup with other vegetables or stir fry with pork, onions, and mizuna. An elaborate dish is made by carving the skin like a cameo, then filling the melon with other vegetables and meat. Steam until the melon flesh is soft.