The Gourd Files, Vol. 3: Calabash


SCIENTIFIC NAME: Lagenaria siceraria. The calabash gourd is often confused with the calabash tree (genus Crescentia), which has similar fruits but is only a distant cousin. Calabash tree fruit has a long history with humans and can be used much like a true calabash, but this is a post about real gourds, so forget about it for now.

COMMON NAMES: Calabash is possibly humanity’s oldest crop, and as you’d expect, it has accumulated a ton of different names over the centuries. In English alone, calabash is also called white gourd, bottle gourd, long gourd, and New Guinea bean. South Asian grocery stores like the one where I bought mine (Patel Brothers in Queens, NY) use dudhi or lauki. English “calabash” derives from Spanish calabaza, a word of uncertain origin.

[Side note: “calabash” is one of my favorite English words. Not because of the fruit, necessarily; I just love the sound of it. Maybe I just like its resemblance to Caliban, one of my favorite Shakespeare characters. Maybe it’s the forcefulness of the final syllable, how the repeated vowel unrolls like a magic word: Abracadabra. Alakazam. Calabash.]

ORIGIN: The importance of calabash to human beings is twofold: the young fruits are edible, but the dried outer shell of the mature fruit makes an excellent watertight container. Calabash fruits may reach several feet in length and are variously skinny or bottle-shaped, straight or twisty, contributing to their variety of uses. Because of this, calabash has been cultivated by people for so long that we’re not even sure precisely where it comes from. Like another universally useful organism–the dog–there was likely more than one domestication of the calabash in Paleolithic times. People appear to have been using the plant in Asia from around 11,000 years ago and in the Americas from around 10,000 years ago.

Above: water containers made from calabash for sale in Kenya. Photo by Sam Stearman (2004).


How calabash got from one continent to another, and on which continent it started, remains something of a mystery. Some think the gourds floated across the oceans like coconuts, but calabash may simply have been so important that our earliest ancestors carried it with them everywhere they went as they dispersed around the world. In ancient times it was known to everyone from the Romans to the Chinese to the Taíno of the Caribbean, whose partly-submerged hunters wore calabash masks to sneak up on waterfowl. Medieval Europeans considered cucurbita (calabash) one of the plants of an ideal garden. Centuries later, enslaved people in the Americas planted calabash in their own gardens as a supplement to their meagre rations. A calabash was the “drinking gourd” of the famous Follow the Drinking Gourd song, said to have led the way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

To this day, calabash has a place in the cuisines and cultures of just about every part of the world. In parts of South America, calabash is used to make the traditional container for the caffeinated beverage mate. In West Africa, dried calabashes are made into water containers, musical instruments, and makeshift motorcycle helmets. In Japan, thinly-sliced dried calabash strips called kanpyō (かんぴょう) are used in some sushi rolls, or as an edible wrapping to tie ingredients together. There’s almost nothing a calabash can’t do.

File:Cucurbita longa flore albo, protuberante ventre - Calebasse - Cucuzza a fiafca. (Bottle gourd) (NYPL b14444147-1124997).tiff


An illustration of a bottle-shaped calabash (here called cuccuzza a fiasca, “flask gourd”) from an Italian gardening manual by Nicolao Martellio, 1772. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the New York Public Library.



  • In Italian-American slang, googootz (dialect for calabash or zucchini) can be used as an insult to mean a stupid or useless person. Ironic, given how useful calabashes actually are.
  • There’s a long tradition in the United States, started by Native Americans, of making dried calabashes into birdhouses. These were hung in crop fields to attract the purple martin, a swallow-like bird that feeds on insects, as a form of natural pest control. John James Audobon commemorated the practice with a painting of martins nesting in a gourd.
  • The city of Calabasas, California, home of the Kardashians and various other celebrities, takes its name from Spanish calabazasPopular legend attributes the name to a 19th-century wagonload of pumpkins that spilled on the future site of the city, causing hundreds of vines to sprout the following spring. Calabasas still holds an annual Pumpkin Festival in celebration. [Note that as in many languages, calabaza can be a generic term for any large gourd species.]

FLAVOR: The white flesh of the calabash is mild and sweet, though not as sweet as pumpkin or butternut squash, and watery, but not as much as a cucumber or snake gourd. Calabash holds up well to cooking (though perhaps not roasting) and is particularly good for stir-fries and soups. I shredded one with other veggies for the Korean noodle dish japchae at my book release party a while back. But I could just as easily have breaded it, made it into curry, etc, etc. With its incredible millennia-long history of use by humans, calabash is in some ways the archetypal, OG gourd. If you’ve got a calabash on your hands, you’re bound to find a recipe, whatever your favorite cuisine.

They do look pretty serpentine, but these gourds are calabash (Lagenaria), not the Trichosanthes species more commonly known as snake gourd. Confusing moments like these are the reason scientific nomenclature exists. Photo by Jim the Photographer (2012) via Flickr.



Out of My Gourd: The Gourd Files


These are the gourds I purchased in Queens which I will be profiling over the next couple of posts. Ten cultivars, nine species (can you guess which two belong to the same species? Bonus question: which two radically-different species are members of the same genus?)


On a recent trip to the New York City neighborhood of Woodside, Queens, home to large communities of South and Southeast Asian immigrants, I was captivated by the wide variety of gourds sold in the grocery stores; many of which I had never heard of, much less tasted. Stricken by a case of gourd fever, I returned to the area on a gourd-hunting expedition with my friend Dressler, whose blog, Bitter Butter, is focused on the history of desserts and pastries. While Dressler explores the baking possibilities of our gourd haul, I’ll be cooking each one and profiling them in a series of posts.

Welcome to The Gourd Files.


What do pumpkin, cantaloupe, cucumber and zucchini have in common? If you said “they’re all fruits, even though we call some of them vegetables,” you’re right! But they’re also all members of the same family: the gourds.

You might know the sweeter gourds as melons, others as squash, marrows or courgettes, and still others (like cucumber) by a unique species name, but in many languages no such distinctions are made. In Latin they were all called cucurbita, and this catch-all name has given rise to our modern scientific terminology. Botanists know them as cucurbits, members of the family Cucurbitaceae. Nearly all cucurbit plants are vines. They share other traits like separate male and female flowers on the same plant and a hard-shelled fruit without segments inside, known as a pepo (which would be the perfect name for a cartoon gourd who has comic misadventures in a vegetable garden.)

File:Squash Blossoms (4142957496).jpg

The flowers of many gourd species are just as edible and visually appealing as the fruit. I grew up eating squash blossoms Italian-style, stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese, battered and fried. Photo by Vegan Feast Catering via Wikimedia Commons (2009).


The gourd family is vast and varied, with close to a thousand species scattered across every continent except Antarctica. The oldest-known cucurbit fossil (from the Paleocene, 66-56 million years ago) was found in Montana, USA, but it’s difficult to know where these plants originated for two reasons: 1) continental drift and 2) human drift. Gourds are useful to us, so we’ve always brought them with us wherever we go. Take for instance one of humanity’s favorite gourds, the bottle gourd or calabash (Lagenaria siceraria). Young calabash fruit is edible, while the mature fruit can be dried to make a watertight container. Ancient humans were quick to pounce on this two-for-one deal. Around 14,000 years ago, calabash became one of the first species ever domesticated; possibly the very first. Early humans took calabash seeds with them on their many migrations, and they’ve been found in Paleolithic sites as far-flung as Egypt, Thailand and Peru. The voyage of Columbus was conducted from one land of calabash-growers to another.

File:Calabash bowls - 1 hand processing millet flour, start.jpg

Calabashes make perfect bowls. Here, they are being used to mix millet flour. Photo by T. K. Naliaka, Wikimedia Commons (2015)


Almost every culture on earth is wild about gourds. And why not? Their uses are endless; they can be steamed or fried, spiralized or stuffed, baked into pie or squished into face mask, etc, etc. In West Africa, dried calabashes are used to make drums and other traditional instruments, while in India, the original loofah sponge was a tough, fibrous gourd called, you guessed it, luffa. The gourde is the national currency of Haiti, though it’s made of paper these days.

File:Edward S. Curtis Collection People 043.jpg

Traditionally, the squash blossom hairstyle indicated a Hopi girl’s eligibility for marriage. Like many other indigenous traditions, it was actively suppressed by US government-backed schools beginning in the 19th century. Hopi girls were forced to cut their hair short to prevent them wearing the style. Today, squash blossom hair is sometimes revived for cultural events and ceremonies. Photo by Edward S. Curtis (1922)


In the American Southwest, the Zuñi and Hopi honor a stripy, gourd-headed nature spirit named Patung, the Squash Katsina. Unmarried Hopi girls once twisted their hair into distinctive double “squash blossoms,” a hairstyle which inspired that of Princess Leia. After bringing our beloved gourds everywhere on earth, it was only a matter of time before we brought them into space.

Human beings cultivate, use and celebrate gourds throughout the world, though not all of the almost-a-thousand cucurbit species are equally well-known. In this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at the flavor, history and personality of some of humanity’s oldest pals. They say dog is man’s best friend, but the first doggie-bowl was a gourd.

Image result for ursula vernon squash

Both the Navajo and the Hopi have lineage groups called Squash Clans, indicating the importance of cucurbits in their cultures. In Hopi culture, Patung is just one of the many katsinim (often written “kachinas”); benevolent nature-spirits with distinctive markings, represented by painted dancers and doll-like icons. Here Patung is depicted by one of my favorite fantasy artists, Ursula Vernon.