The Gourd Files, Vol. 3: Calabash

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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.

 

FUN FACTS:

  • 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.

 

 

Ancient Recipe: Patina de Rosis [Baked Brains & Roses] (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

img_5800.jpg“Take roses fresh from the flower bed, strip off the leaves, remove the white from the petals and put them in the mortar; pour over some fish sauce and rub fine. Add a glass of fish sauce and strain the juice through the colander. This done, take four cooked calf’s brains, skin them and remove the nerves; crush eight scruples of pepper moistened with the juice and rub with the brains; thereupon break eight eggs, add a glass of wine, a glass of raisin wine and a little oil. Meanwhile grease a pan, place it on the hot ashes or in the hot bath in which pour the above described material; when the mixture is cooked in the double boiler, sprinkle it with ground pepper and serve.”
~ De re coquinaria (Apicius) Book 4, Chapter 2, ca. 5th century CE

I’m a big fan of eating brains.

My Roman ancestors felt the same way. The Roman cookbook Apicius contains recipes for brain sausages, brain-stuffed squash fritters and rose patina (patina de rosis), a baked dish of scrambled brain and eggs, flavored with roses.

Except among zombies and evil meteors, eating brains is far less popular globally than it once was. Modern science has found brains to be very high in cholesterol, and also tarnished their reputation by associating them with a deadly epidemic. That would be mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In the 1990s, a BSE outbreak in the UK caused a global panic, leading to the deaths of over 200 people and the slaughter of 4.4 million potentially-infected cattle.

Caused by the malfunctioning of DNA proteins called prions, BSE results in holes in the victim’s brain tissue (hence the name “spongiform”), leading to neural degeneration and death. It can be contracted from eating the meat and especially the brain of an infected animal, and transmission is unaffected by cooking. Which raises a reasonable question–didn’t the brain-craving Romans suffer from mad cow disease? Not exactly.

A Medieval copy of Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, Vegetius’s guide to veterinary medicine. The prion disease of goats and sheep mentioned within might be scrapie, which was formally described by science in 1732. Photo by Sailko (2013).

BSE is not the only prion disease, and similar livestock illnesses are described by ancient writers such as Hippocrates in 400 BCE and Vegetius, who lived at the same time when Apicius was composed (4th and 5th centuries CE). But most prion diseases cannot pass from animal to human, making mad cow disturbingly unique. There is no ancient account of a person contracting a prion disease, although Hippocrates mistakenly conflated prion disease in animals with epilepsy in humans because of their similar symptoms.

BSE was first identified in 1986, and its development and spread were directly linked to the industrialization of 20th-century farming. Undesirable bits from slaughtered cattle, including their brains, were ground up and fed to living cattle as a protein supplement called MBM or “meat and bone meal”, inadvertently infecting the animals with prion disease (and giving me grisly flashbacks to Soylent Green and the “soap” from Cloud Atlas). Because of the ’90s BSE outbreak, most countries have banned the use of MBM in feed for ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cows and sheep, although it is still an ingredient in commercial pet food.  As a further precaution, since prion diseases do not manifest until adulthood, it is now illegal in many countries to sell brain from an adult cow. Which is to say that this recipe, which uses calf brains, is just about as safe as it was in Roman times.

THE RECIPE

The sweet wine in the original Roman recipe, called passum, was made from raisins, making it a type of straw wine. Passum is still made in Italy today under the slightly-different name of passito. You can also use marsala, sherry, or Manischewitz.

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The main ingredient, looking exactly how you would expect.

Apicius provides some unusually specific instructions about incorporating roses into this dish: take fresh roses, “cut off the white” (presumably separate the petals from the flowerheads), grind with fish sauce and strain. I attempted this with fresh roses and their flavor/scent did not carry over into the fish sauce, so I ended up using rosewater (or rose tea), which I made by soaking dried rose petals in hot water.

-2 calf’s or pig’s brains (available, fresh or frozen, from halal butchers and some Mexican or Asian grocery stores)
-4 beaten eggs
-1/3 cup rosewater
-1/3 cup fish sauce
-1/2 cup sweet cooking wine
-1 teaspoon black pepper
-rose petals for serving (optional)

Rinse the brains in cold water and pat dry. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, lower the heat and simmer the brains until they are gray and a fork can pierce them easily (about 10 minutes).

In a blender or food processor, combine brains with all the other ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid into a pie dish greased with olive oil.

Apicius instructs the chef to cook the dish by placing it in termospodio, “in the embers.” You can use a double boiler to replicate the even, gentle heat of hot coals. I balanced my 9-inch pie dish on top of a cast-iron pan filled with water and added a lid.

Cook the patina over low heat for 40-45 minutes, until a fork inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with rose petals and more black pepper.

THE VERDICT

The flavor of brain resembles liver mousse, rich and creamy. The roses are an interesting addition, with a subtle flavor balanced by the sweetness of the wine. Like many baked Roman patinae, this one is soft and wet enough to require a spoon. Eat it by itself or with bread, while it’s still hot (nobody likes cold brains).

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