Saturday, November 7, 2009

Luffa...Not Just For Scrubbing Your Back

The awesome diversity of ingredients used in day-to-day cooking around the world has always fascinated me. For example, there’re at least a dozen varieties of leafy green vegetables common to Chinese cooking that aren’t found in American cuisine. And I know from my best friend who’s Gujarati that the same applies to Indian food but with a totally different set of yummy greens.

And then we approach the world of Asian squash. To start , you’ve got bitter melon, fuzzy melon, winter melon, and loofah squash. Wait…what? Isn’t loofah what I use to exfoliate? I can guess that’s what you’re thinking and actually yes, it really is! But the same plant picked at an earlier stage is also commonly eaten across Asia and Africa.

Of course its texture as food is nothing like its dried form (thankfully!). Quite the opposite, loofah (or luffa) flesh becomes silky with a delicate, slightly sweet flavor when cooked. Also known as ridge gourd, Chinese okra, and Si Gua (in Mandarin), this squash soaks up other flavors beautifully. Chinese cooks frequently make it into a simple stir-fry with seafood and/or pork. I didn't have the former on hand and don’t eat the latter, so you'll find my vegetable stir-fry recipe after the jump. But if you have a need for meat, you can grab some great tips and a recipe for luffa with pork here.

Luffa Squash Stir-fry with Wood Ear Mushrooms and Carrots [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Serves 2 to 3

XIAOLU'S NOTES: The wood ear mushrooms should be available at most Asian groceries near the more well-known dried shiitake mushrooms (which you could substitute here if you can't find the wood ear variety). These need to be reconstituted for at least 30 minutes in warm water, rubbed to remove any dirt, torn into smaller pieces if very large, and then drained before use. As for peeling the luffa squash, you can either use a normal peeler or (as shown below) you can divide it into 3 to 4-inch sections and slice off the peel vertically.

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2" ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried wood ear (or sliced shiitake) mushrooms, reconstituted and drained
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 ounces cellophane noodles, soaked in warm water and drained
1 medium to large luffa squash (1 1/2 to 2 feet long), peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons fish sauce or oyster sauce
2/3 cup water or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and shimmers. Add the ginger and garlic and fry for up to a minute until fragrant, stirring constantly to avoid burning the garlic.

Add the carrots and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the luffa and mushrooms and mix well. Add the cellophane noodles followed by 2/3 cup water or vegetable stock. Add the fish sauce, salt, and pepper to taste and mix well.

Cover the pan 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, which will take about 2 to 3 minutes. The dish should be rather soupy but reduce the liquid further or add more water according to your personal preference. Once you're satisfied, serve the stir-fry hot with steamed rice or rice porridge.

FUN FOOD FACT: The black wood ear mushrooms I use here are commonly used in Chinese cooking, partly because they’re believed to have medicinal properties. According to this site, there may actually be something to this belief since scientists have recently found a chemical in these fungi that tends to inhibit blood clotting.

Luffa on Foodista


  1. What does luffa taste like exactly? From all my vast experience with it I'd say it tastes like rose scented soup and was rather chewy/dry.

    Kidding aside, you taught me something! Although I'd never be able to find luffa in our market.

  2. It looks very interesting - I think I need to go on a trip to an Asian grocery store and do some exploring.

  3. I love cooking with/reading about new and interesting ingredients. It really is amazing how many varieties of goods there are out there. More than I can even imagine, I'm sure!

    Does this squash become slimy the way that okra does?

    Delicious stir fry. What a great sauce to put on it.

  4. Laura - Thanks for making me laugh out loud! Sorry this isn't available where you are. The taste/texture of the squash can't be replaced exactly, but you could substitute zucchini or even cucumber (removing the seeds) for a still tasty dish.

    Alicia - I whole-heartedly support that trip, though if you come out with 3X the food you intended to get (as I always do), don't point the finger at me =p.

    Joanne - I guess one person's "silky" may be another's slimy, but I don't think these cross that line. But admittedly I've never experienced the slimyness of American okra.

  5. Wow, I’ve never heard of this! Looks a bit like large okra. I will have to seek it out- thanks!

  6. Thanks for coming by! Since one of its names is "Chinese okra," perhaps they're actually related. Either way, it's yummy and I hope you find some to try.

  7. I've seen this squash around a lot, and wondered how to prepare it. So, you don't eat the skin, huh. Is it bitter or too tough to eat the skin? I am interested in trying it out.

  8. I don't know of any Chinese dishes that use the skin, but I searched and found some Indian recipes for chutney and such (see links below). I think it's great to avoid waste as much as possible and there are probably a lot of nutrients under the skin.

  9. Hm I don't think I've ever seen this vegetable before! It's really interesting looking. I love all the greens used in Chinese cooking. My favourite are gai lan and pea tips! I'm still kind of wary of the wood ear mushroom though for some reason.

  10. Aren't the ridges mesmerizing? I love those greens too and amaranth is another fav of mine. Wood ear does have a very interesting look and texture so your feeling is totally understandable.

  11. Interesting way of removing the luffa skin- those things really aren't very solid. But this is one of my favorite squashes! So sweet & easy to use!

  12. I agree, Emii, that they're not very sturdy but I did find this less obnoxious than peeling the ridges with a regular peeler. I'm glad you're a fan of this veggie too and would love to know how you prepare it even.


I love hearing from you all! Please leave me a message if you have questions, advice, or just to let me know you stopped by. Your feedback is always very much appreciated. Thanks! <3 Xiaolu