Gourds are members of the family Cucurbitaceae (Cucurbits) along with melons, squash and cucumbers. They're all "cucumbers" to the botanist and "Vine Crops" to the agriculturist, and the're all fruit but in culinary practice gourds are "vegetables".
Gourds are native to Asia and Africa and were unknown in the Americas until brought by European traders and invaders after 1500 (some controversy here). In any case there were already squash in the Americas that dried to hard shells that would be called "gourds" in popular usage, but which aren't actually gourds.
General & History
Gourds are not so neatly categorizable as squash and cucumbers, each of which belongs to a single genus (with just a couple exceptions). Not only are there several distinct genera of gourds but the line between gourds and cucumbers is a bit fuzzy, and some gourds are called "melons" even though they aren't.
For our discussion here "Gourd" will be any vine fruit belonging to family Cucurbitaceae and native to Asia or Africa that is not a melon or cucumber - regardless of what they're called in common usage.Varieties
Ash Gourd -
[Winter Melon, White Pumpkin, Wax Gourd, Safed Petha (Hindi), Dong Gua
(China), Benincasa hispida]
This large gourd is popular in China as Winter Melon, both for its delicacy when cooked and because with its waxy coating it can be kept well into the winter. In India it's used for sweets and curries. Immature melon is sold as Fuzzy Melon.
The photo specimen is a
spherical variety about 10 inches in diameter, relatively small so it can be
sold whole. The sausage shaped varieties can easily top a yard long and 50
pounds. Details and Cooking.
Bitter Melon -
[Balsam Pear, Bitter Gourd; Karela (India); Ampalaya (Philippine);
Ku gua (China), genus Momordica]
Aside from the bitterness, the flavor of this gourd is very interesting, and it is popular throughout India, Nepal, China and Southeast Asia. While long popular in Okinawa, this gourd has recently gained popularity on the main islands of Japan. People are using the vines to shade the sun side of their homes, and the gourds are available in markets during the Summer, for use in Okinawa style dishes.
Bitter Melon is now also grown in Africa, the Caribbean, and of course California. The Chinese variety is always in very good supply here in Los Angeles, and the Indian varieties are increasingly available.
The gourds are generally eaten quite green when the seed mass will be white. As the gourd ripens fully it turns yellowish, very bitter and less crisp. The pulpy arils surrounding the seeds become brilliant red and quite sweet. They are popular in salads in Southeast Asia but at this point the rest of the melon is of little use.
Bottle Gourd -
[Opo, Calabash (U.S.); Upo (Filipino); Dudhi, Lauki, Sorakaya (India);
Yugao, Kampyo (Japan); Po gua (Canton); Kwa kawa, Hu gua (China);
Cucuzzi, Cucuzza (Italy); Bau (Viet); Lagenaria siceraria]
This gourd comes in many shapes and sizes from long and snake like to spherical but the form pictured is the one common in Southern California markets. They will grow much larger but they get very bitter when more mature. Eventually the shell hardens and the gourd becomes hollow and may be used as a container or carved decoratively.
Young shoots and leaves are also edible. Dried strips of the gourd called
Kampyo are important in Japan and often used as edible bindings to hold other
ingredients together. Details and Cooking.
Calabash - See Bottle Gourd. There is also a Calabash that isn't a gourd at all but the large spherical fruit of a tree in the Bignonia family (B. Crescentia (6 species)) native to Central and South America. Both types of calabash are dried and used as containers.
Fuzzy Melon -
[Mao gwa, Mu qua Tseet gwa (China); Heari Meron (Japan (got that?));
Timum balu (Malay); Faeng (Thai); Bi (Viet); Benincasa hispida]
A variety of the large to gigantic Ash Gourd that's picked and eaten at a much earlier stage of growth. In this stage it's covered with short bristles, thus the name, but by time I get them home most have rubbed off. Many recipes say to peel them, but you'll have more flavor and more melon if you just scrape them.
Asian recipes usually presume they're about 1/2 pound, but here in Los
Angeles they run from 1 pound to a shade over 2 pounds. The photo specimen
was 13 inches long and weighed 2-1/4 pounds, well above average size.
Details and Cooking.
Ivy Gourd - see Tindora.
Luffa Gourd - [Loofa, Sponge Gourd, genus Loofa]
Most well known in the U.S. as a bath sponge, these gourds are grown in a number of varieties both for sponges and for eating. They are immensely popular in India and also much used in Southeast Asia and China.
Opo / Upo - See Bottle Gourd
Parval Gourd - [Parwal gourd, Pointed
Gourd, Potal; C.Trichosanthes dioica]
This tiny realative of the Snake Gourd is an important vegetable in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh (north eastern India). They have just started becoming available in the Indian markets here in Southern California (spring 2013) but are still expensive at about 2013 US $5.99 per pound. They were formerly only available canned, but availability fresh is still very erratic.
These gourds can grow to 6 inches long but are harvested immature at
between 2 and 3 inches. The photo specimens were typically 2-1/2 inches
long and 1.2 inches diameter. The seeds are larger and more mature than
in other edible gourds and are a bit crunchy, but since these gourds are
often stuffed or sliced, the seeds are usually removed. The skin is very
thin but a little hard, so they are most often scraped. Cooked taste was
pleasant, but not really distinctive. I'd not seek these out at the
price - but then, I'm not from there.
Snake Gourd -
[Serpent Gourd, Chichinga, Padwal, Trichosanthes cucumerina
This gourd is popular in Southern India and Southeast Asia. It comes in various colors, sizes and shapes, growing to as long as 6 feet, and in Asia is often seen with a rock tied to the tip to keep it growing straight. Shoots and leaves are also eaten as a vegetable.
The flesh of this gourd is similar to the Luffa
and Bottle Gourd and like them will hold its
shape when cooked. Unlike the other two, the seed mass of the Snake Gourd is
loose and fluffy and is usually removed. Snake gourd is also used in
traditional Chinese medicine.
Details and Cooking.
Photo by Abhilash placed in public domain.
Pork Fat Nut -
[Lard Seed; Akar kepayang (Malay); Hodgsonia macrocarpa |
These gourds, of the same tribe as the Parval and Snake Gourds
above, but quite different in makeup, are native to the eastern
Himalayas, Yunan, China and Assam in the far northeast of India. These
vines produce fibrous fleshed fruit weighing about 4 pounds. The
more commonly used H. macrocarpa is lighter in color and lacks
the pumpkin-like sutures of H. heteroclita in the watercolor.
Each fruit has up to 8 large seeds which have a 50% fat content. They
are suspected of being slightly toxic raw, but are generally roasted
or otherwise cooked before use. Roasted, they taste like fatty pieces
of pork. In Assam these nuts are used in curries. The flesh is not
considered edible. Cooking oil can be pressed from the seeds, which is
also used medicinally, as are other parts of the plant.
Watercolor by John Fergusson 1855 copyright expired.
Tinda - [Indian
round gourd, apple gourd, Indian baby pumpkin, Praecitrullus
fistulosus alt Citrullus vulgaris]
Native to India, this gourd is popular in the cuisines of Northern India and
Pakistan. It's becoming more common in Southern California and is seasonally
available in markets that have a significant Indian / Pakistani element in
their clientele. The gourd is eaten in an immature stage when it will be
about 3 inches in diameter and tender with skin that does not need to be
peeled. Seeds of more mature gourds are also eaten.
Details and Cooking.
[Ivy Gourd, Indian Gherkin; Scarlet Gourd; Pepino Cimarron (Spanish);
Hong gua (China); Kovakka (Malay); Tendli, Tondli, Tindola, Ghiloda,
Goli, Kundri, Kundru, Kunduzi, Kowai, Kovai, Donda, Dondakaya
(India); Coccinia grandis]
A popular vegetable in India, this tiny gourd can now be found in Indian markets in California and elsewhere. Here it is always sold green, looking very much like a tiny cucumber, but in India it is also sometimes used in it's scarlet red mature stage.
Tindora can be eaten raw and are a lot more crunchy than cucumbers, or they
may be cooked as a side dish or may be pickled. When pickled they are
sometimes called "gherkin" but are easy to tell from the real
Gherkin and from cucumber gherkins by
their smooth skin. Typically they are between 2-1/2 and 3-1/4 inches long,
3/4 to 7/8 inch diameter and weigh around 5/8 ounce.
Details and Cooking.