Cool tastes to beat the heat: gourds a gift in our humid summer
Entering the heat of summer, three green gourds are becoming frequent visitors to local dining tables – cucumbers, bitter gourds and luffas – something fresh, something bitter and something tender.
Gourds are a gift in the humid summer, and cooking summer gourds is easy-peasy. The texture of these gourds requires minimum cooking time and effort, as it's all about keeping that freshness all together on one plate.
A star in the salad world, cucumbers often serve the purpose of refreshing dishes and the palate with their mild, crisp taste. Cucumbers contain a high water content, and that's where the crunch comes from.
Cucumbers are eaten both raw and cooked in Chinese cuisine, and the recipe that wears the crown is paihuanggua, the crunched cucumber salad that can be found anywhere, anytime in restaurants, and a recipe so simple that it requires no meticulous knife skills or cooking techniques. Just smash, mix and enjoy.
The difference between a Chinese crunched cucumber salad and Western-style cucumber salad is the patting and smashing action, as a whole cucumber is first beaten and crunched with the side of the knife before it's cut into smaller pieces. The crunched cucumber will have a looser texture to better take up the flavorful dressing, the rough surface also making it easier to pick up with chopsticks.
A classic recipe for the dressing is composed of vinegar, light soy sauce, garlic paste, sesame oil, cilantro, sugar and salt (depending on the saltiness of the soy sauce). Additional condiments such as oyster sauce and small red chilis (xiaomila) can also be added to elevate the flavor.
A thorough mixing is needed to coat the cucumber evenly with the dressing. It can be set aside for a short time, but be aware that the salt can drive out the water content from the cucumber, which could then become soggy.
The peel of the cucumber doesn't go to waste either. With some extra effort, it can become a delicious side dish – lightly pickled cucumber peel has an extra crunchy texture and rich flavor from the marinade. The recipe requires basic seasonings such as vinegar (or lemon juice, for that citrusy taste and lighter color), sugar, salt, light soy sauce and optional red chilis for some extra kick.
It takes only a few hours to pickle the cucumber peel, which is best done in the fridge on hotter days. The pickled cucumber peel can be enjoyed with congee and buns for breakfast and dinner.
Cucumber and egg is a classic pairing to make stir-fries or soups. Light, quick and refreshing. The cucumber will become softer when it's stir-fried with a little bit oil and present a sweeter flavor that's quite different from eating it raw.
To make a quick and visually delightful cucumber and egg drop soup, simply stir-fry thin slices of cucumber with some garlic and oil, when the cucumbers soften, add water and cover the pot with lid to bring it to boil, then pour in the beaten egg and stir, turn off the heat and season with salt, sesame oil and a sprinkling of chopped scallion.
With extra fresh cucumbers you don't want to keep in the fridge, slice them and add in a water jug with a few slices of lemon to make cucumber and lemon detox water, a healthy, refreshing beverage to instantly cool the summer heat.
You either love or hate bitter gourds, there's no neutral ground. The vegetable has a unique and distinct bitterness that makes it one of the 10 most disgusting vegetables in China.
On a daily basis, bitter gourds are cooked and served in chilled salads or stir-fries. Unlike cucumber salad that uses the raw vegetable, bitter gourds need to be poached in boiling water and then chilled in iced water before it's mixed with a delicious dressing, a step that removes the astringency and some of the bitter taste.
Bitter gourds are stir-fried alone or with proteins such as eggs or meat. The texture of the crunchy gourd will soften in cooking, but it will always retain some of the bitter taste.
Bitter gourd and Sprite salad is a modern adaptation to tone down the bitter taste. Poached and chilled bitter gourd slices are soaked in a dressing of lemon, goji berries, honey and Sprite, a sweeter salad with a refreshing citrusy flavor.
Soaking bitter gourds in lightly salted water in advance can also neutralize some of the bitter taste. Bitter gourd and pork rib soup is a traditional recipe in the Chaozhou and Shantou areas of Guangdong Province. It's often served in summer for the benefit of clearing away heat. A bitter gourd is cut into larger pieces so that it can be stewed for a longer time.
Cutting a bitter gourd into small or thick rings and then removing the seeds will create a vessel in which to stuff minced pork. The dish is then steamed to maintain its shape and a sauce poured on top when it's served for a glossy and flavorful finish.
The luffa is a summer favorite, a delicious vegetable with heat-clearing properties. Also known as towel gourd, the luffa is much meatier than cucumbers or bitter gourds, and has a rough and thick skin that must be peeled before cooking.
The luffa has very light flavor, which makes it versatile in recipes. The quickest and easiest way to enjoy fresh luffa is to stir-fry the vegetable with some garlic. To keep it green, remember to sprinkle some salt on the surface of the fresh luffa slices or chunks and set aside for a few minutes. Cooking the vegetable in hot oil over a high heat is the key to preserve the fresh taste and texture. Overcooking luffas may result in losing the moisture.
Like cucumbers and bitter gourds, luffas can be paired with eggs for a rich and umami taste. Luffa and egg stir-fry or luffa and egg drop soup – simple recipes, great flavors. Adding shrimp and mushrooms can also make the soup more umami.
Luffas can also be cut into larger chunks and steamed with garlic and light soy sauce, a recipe that requires no standing and waiting in a hot kitchen. Luffa and tofu stew is another great vegan recipe.
Luffas are on offer at some hotpot restaurants as a vegetable, but its meaty and spongy texture can soak up extra oil when cooked in spicy broth.
Luffas are eaten as a vegetable when young and tender. It can grow much larger with a hardened texture, transforming into a cleaning tool after it's matured and dried, a natural scratch-free replacement for sponges.