Rediscovering Luffa Squash

luffa_squash2

Luffa squash lying elegantly on my dining table

Our taste buds are the most effective memory keepers of all.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my favorite Hmong farmer, Moua, about the assortment of Asian vegetables he grows and sells. He drew out an elongated green specimen which could have come straight out of a Star Trek episode. The curved gourd has a matt green skin with ridges running down the length of it. “It’s called sing gua,” explained Moua. “Stir fry with pork, garlic and lemongrass .”

Moua and Mary

Moua and his daughter Mary at the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers’ Market

I happily took one home with me to experiment.

Once in the comfort of my own kitchen, I looked up sing gua in Sara Deseran’s “Asian Vegetables.” This odd vegetable is also called luffa squash, Chinese okra and sponge gourd (for good reason!).

peeling_luffa

If anyone tells you you don’t have to peel the skin, don’t believe them.

To peel the luffa squash, I trimmed the ends and cut it in half. Standing the flat sides of each half on the cutting board, I peeled the bitter skin completely to reveal the pale green flesh. I then cut it crosswise into 1-inch coins.

peeled_luffa

Peeled and sliced luffa, kinda looks like honeydew melon!

While a luffa has seeds, they are edible and don’t need to be removed. And like a sponge, it will soak up whatever flavors you pair it with.

Anyway I stir fried the luffa as instructed by Moua and sat down to eat. I popped a spoonful of luffa with rice into my mouth and started chewing. As I chomped down on its supple texture, savoring its sweet flavor paired with fish sauce and lemongrass, visions of a childhood dish comprising slices of a soft green vegetable, carrots and cellophane noodles played themselves out in front of my eyes in a wave of nostalgia.

OMG, I know this vegetable!

A quick phone call to my mum revealed this vegetable to be oyong in Indonesian and she furnished me with a recipe.

Funny enough, this childhood dish has been on my radar for the last couple of weeks since I’ve been compiling a list of my favorite recipes for a new book proposal.

The world works in mysterious ways. The stars align. Serendipitous things happen.

Stir-fried Luffa Squash with Pork and Carrots

stir-fried luffa

Luffa is delicious in stir-fries, soaking up the flavors of whatever seasoning or meat/ seafood (it tastes great with squid and shrimp) you pair it with. Try it in curries or soups as well.Some people like it raw too! Ever adventurous, I picked up some burgundy carrots at the farmers’ market which stained the cellophane noodles a purplish hue. Heh.

red_carrot

A burgundy carrot is beautiful to behold but watch out–the color bleeds!

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 2 servings over rice as a main course

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
I clove garlic, chopped
1 Asian shallot, sliced
4 ounces pork shoulder or loin, sliced into bite-sized pieces (or chopped raw shrimp)
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 ounces cellophane noodles, soaked in warm water and drained
1 small luffa squash (8 ounces)
Water or stock
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Salt and white pepper

In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until runny and ripply. Stir in the garlic and shallot and fry until fragrant, about 30 to 45 seconds.

Add the carrot and toss for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the pork and toss until the meat loses its blush, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Add the luffa and mix well. Add the cellophane noodles followed by 2/3 cup water. Add fish sauce, salt and pepper to taste and mix well.

Cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. The dish is done when the cellophane noodles are completely transparent, the carrots are soft, and the liquid has reduced to about 1/4 cup, 2 to 3 minutes. The dish should be rather soupy but use your discretion and reduce the liquid further or add more water.

Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

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