When loofah is allowed to fully ripen and dry out on the vine, it becomes fibrous and is used as natural bath sponge which most people are familiar with. However, when picked young, it’s a vegetable used throughout Asia and parts of Africa.
In China, loofah is a beloved vegetable in the summer for its cooling properties. Called Si Gua (丝瓜) in Mandarin, which literally means “silk gourd”, it is often stir-fried, steamed, or added to soups.
Two varieties exist: the smooth one called common loofah, and the ridged one called angled loofah. While both are commonly used in Chinse cooking, the angled loofah, as shown in the picture to the left, is the tastier one of the two. Beneath its rough green skin, you can find white and soft flesh that turns wonderfully silky and slightly sweet when cooked. Because of its porous texture, it absorbs well the flavors of other ingredients during cooking.
If you are new to cooking with loofah, peeling it might be the only “challenging” task, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Simply use a swivel peeler to remove the ridges and the dark green peel, but try to keep the pale green layer underneath, which adds both flavor and texture to the dish.
You can cut the peeled loofah into slices, or bite-sized chunks using the Chinese roll-cut technique, as shown in the picture to the right. It’s a beautiful cut, isn’t it? Be sure to peel and slice loofah just before cooking, or the sliced pieces would turn dark due to oxidization.
Look for loofah at Asian grocery stores or farmers’ markets, and choose the ones that are small and firm.
My favorite way of cooking loofah to give it a brief stir-fry with strong-flavored ingredients such garlic, onions, pickled chile, or tiny dried shrimp as in the recipe below. I prefer to cook loofah to the point that the flesh just turns tender with some residual crunchiness.
Tiny dried shrimp, or Xia Pi (虾皮) in Mandarin, is a great ingredient to boost umami flavor in savory dishes. They are made with small shrimp belonging to the genus of Acetes, which are typically 1-3 centimeters long and translucent. The unshelled shrimp are dried either raw or after boiled with salted water. You can find Xia Pi at Asian grocery stores. The best ones are minimally processed, i.e. dried without boiling.
Stir-fried loofah with tiny dried shrimp
Makes 2 servings
1 lb (450 g) loofah
2 tablespoons tiny dried shrimp (Xia Pi, 虾皮)
2 teaspoons fish sauce or soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Use a swivel peeler to remove the ridges and the dark green peel of the loofah, and keep as much as possible the pale green layer underneath. Cut the loofah into slices crosswise, or into bite-sized chunks with the Chinese roll-cut technique: start at one end and make a diagonal cut; roll the loofah a quarter turn and cut at an angle again; continue until you reach the other end. Try to keep the pieces the same size.
- Heat the oil in a hot wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the dried shrimp and stir fry quickly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the loofah pieces and turn up the heat. Stir and mix for 1 minute. Pour in 2 tablespoons of water. Continue to stir and cook until softened with some residual crunchiness, about 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in the fish sauce or soy sauce.
- Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed, and serve immediately.
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