Bottle Gourd

Lagenaria siceraria


Also calabash, hu lu gua and similar names (Chinese), lauki and dudhi (Indian), upo (Philippine)

Including cucuzza and tennerumi

Cucurbits—a colloquial catchall term used to signify members of the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family (which includes some 800 species)—are as often as not notable more for their usefulness than their distinctiveness. Mild, versatile, and adaptable, the bottle gourd, for example, appears in daily meals from India to Italy, China to Mexico.

Although Americans new to it may think of it as an odd newcomer, the bottle gourd “has a longer documented history of use, in both the Old and New Worlds, than any other plant” according to the authors of Cucurbits, R. W. Robinson and D. S. Decker-Walters. In another renowned study, The Gourd Book, Charles Heiser devotes 157 pages to what he calls simply the gourd. “Its greatest use has been as a bottle or container . . . and for that reason alone ... [it was] one of man’s most important plants before the invention of pottery,” Heiser writes. But it has also been used for “food, floats, musical instruments, medicine, artistic en-deavors, and as an almost indispensable item in man’s attire.”

About “man’s attire”: Bottle gourds have served for centuries as protectors of mankind’s manhood in the tropics—and to judge from a notice in The Cucurbit Network News (a Miami-based publication that perhaps not all my readers subscribe to) may also do so in the United States: “Our recent offering of penis gourd [a type of bottle gourd] seeds was well received; we distributed seeds to 22 TCN members. On what we hope is a non-related matter, Peter Waterman holds the world record for the longest gourd ... at 110⅝ inches.”

The Italian food authority Lidia Matticchio Bastianich has childhood memories of another nonedible use for bottle gourds: “My grandfather would pick the largest and let them dry completely in the sun. . . . He would then tie two gourds at their stems with a rope, leaving slack of about 1% feet. We used this as a lifesaver, having a gourd float from each of our underarms.”

And, yes, people do eat bottle gourd! What’s noteworthy about it is its fiberless flesh, which remains satiny and uniform whether hot, warm, or cold. Relatively smooth-skinned, pale lime green smaller specimens, cooked briefly, are reminiscent of firm chayote, or of cucumber and zucchini, although firmer and milder. Immature gourds are cooked like summer squash in India, China, Africa, and South America, to name several vast areas. In Japan, the flesh of a type called Yūgao is cut into strips and dried to become kamypo, an ingredient ubiquitous in the cuisine. Older gourds are also eaten, although primarily in candied form.

There is such diversity in the size and shape of the bottle gourd that each country, and even each region, claims it as a local specialty. When a friend pointed out his favorite “Italian squash” (cucuzza) at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, he could hardly have known that it was a form of the same gourd we had picked up in Chinatown.

Cucuzza (Lagenaria siceraria ‘Longissima’), also called zucca lunga or Hercules war club, is a bottle gourd best known in parts of Italy and among people of Italian descent. This is also true of its greens, called ten(n)e-rumi. “The young cucuzzi are eaten around Naples, in Sicily, and in Sardinia,” says the Italian food authority Giuliano Bugialli, “but rarely anywhere else in Italy. ‘Cucuzza’ is a slangy word for zucca, which just means squash.” The greens and the plushy, fuzzy leaves and chewy buds are also cooked, with the gourd or separately. A traditional squash preserve called zuccata—or, in Sicilian, cucuzzata—is made from mature cucuzza.

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