When a friend mentioned the Loofah gourd, I thought of a scrubby for the shower. When he mentioned eating the Loofah, I had to stop and really think for a minute. This is probably the same situation for most of us, as this Asian vegetable is not very well known here for cuisine. We tend to grow them or know them as bath or scrubbing sponges, the result of growing a long green gourd, then drying, peeling, seeding and pounding it to make it soft enough to use as a sponge. Virtually unknown in American kitchens, this very same gourd is harvested young across Asia when it is a tender and adaptable vegetable. It has a porous texture and cucumber-like flavor that lends itself well in dishes that use a sauce base or where it can soak up the other flavors of the dish. Very popular in China, it is steamed, boiled or stir-fried with various ingredients such as garlic, onions or dried- sometimes salted- prawns. In spicy dishes, it is used as a cooling ingredient.
There are two physically different kinds of Loofah. One has ridges on it that must be peeled to remove the sharp ridges before cooking. The second type, which is more common in the US, is round and when small looks like a zucchini. It only needs to be washed and sliced for cooking, though some recipes will call for it to be peeled. Terroir Seeds carries a round Loofah that can be eaten and used as a sponge.
Here are a couple of stir-fried Loofah recipes to get you used to the idea of the Loofah as a food.
Chao Sigua (Stir-Fried Loofah)
This is an extremely simple side dish that is deceptively delicious.
2 Tbsp Peanut oil
4 Cloves garlic, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 Lb. Young Loofah gourd, cut 1/4 inch diagonally, then in 1/4 inch julienned
1 Tbsp Water
1/4 Tsp sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat large wok or cast iron skillet over high heat, then add oil once wok is hot. Keep heat on high- this cooks in under a minute. Immediately add garlic, stir quickly 10-20 seconds. Add Loofah and water, give a good stir then add salt and pepper, stir again then add sugar. Stir for 30-60 seconds and serve immediately. Do not overcook, more than 60 seconds. The high heat will cook with very little oil and create a very delicious taste.
Stir-Fried Loofah and Chicken
This is another unusual, but delicious Chinese dish that will amaze your guests. Make sure everything is sliced, at hand and ready to be added to the wok, as once the cooking starts you will only have time to add ingredients and stir, as the whole process will take only about 5-7 minutes. I prefer to use a cast iron wok, as it retains the heat better and makes the fast cooking of the Chinese stir-fry much easier. I start cooking the dish when the rice is just finishing up, and both are usually ready about the same time.
1/2 Lb skinless boneless chicken breast, cut across grain into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 Tsp Sesame oil
2 Tbs Oyster sauce
1 Tbs Soy sauce
1 Tsp Sugar
1/2 Cup Chicken stock or chicken broth
1/2 Lb Young loofah (about 12 inches long). Slice diagonally into 1/4 inch slices, then cut in half. You may peel this if you want, but not needed.
1/8 to 1/4 Cup Peanut oil
3 Small fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 Tsp Chinese fermented black bean sauce
5 Small (2-inch) fresh red chiles such as Thai, seeded and cut into fine julienne (2 Tsp)
2 Tsp Garlic, finely chopped
2 Tsp Fresh Ginger, finely chopped
2 Tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
Stir chicken, soy sauce, sugar and 1/2 Tsp Sesame oil in a bowl, set aside for 10 minutes. This acts as a quick marinade. If you want, add 1/2 of the chiles to the mix.
Stir Oyster sauce, corn starch, and chicken broth/stock in another bowl, set aside.
Heat dry wok or cast iron skillet on medium-high to high heat. It needs to be just almost smoking before you add the oil. Once you add the oil, you will immediately start cooking and not slow down to get the best flavor and texture. When wok is hot, add Peanut oil, swirl wok to coat sides and immediately add chicken, stirring constantly. Cook for 1-1 1/2 minutes, until no longer pink, but just barely.
Remove chicken with slotted spoon to a bowl and set aside. Increase heat to high, add remainder of oil if needed, swirl wok to coat sides and add mushrooms, cook until lightly browned and tender, stirring constantly. This should be 1-2 minutes. Add black bean sauce, chiles, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add loofah and stir to coat, then add Oyster sauce mix and bring to a boil, stirring well. It should boil and start to thicken and turn translucent in 30-45 seconds. Lower heat to low at this point, let Oyster sauce with the cornstarch finish thickening to your liking and serve immediately over sticky rice. Drizzle remaining 1/2 Tsp Sesame oil over dish just before serving.