Winter melon, or ash gourd, is a mild-tasting fruit that's often used as a vegetable in Asian cuisines—most commonly in Chinese and Indian food. It's a popular ingredient in soups, sweets, and beverages. It thrives in warm climates, such as Asia and South Florida. Once picked, the melons are easy to transport, and they store well. They are sold primarily in Asian markets where there is a higher demand.
What Is Winter Melon?
Winter melon, scientifically called Benincasa hispida, is also commonly called ash gourd, wax gourd, white gourd, and winter gourd. It is a member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), commonly referred to as cucurbits, which includes cucumbers, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, and other squash.
The fruit's seasonal name likely comes from the fact that, while grown during the summer and autumn, it can be stored for up to three to four months and eaten during the winter. Additionally, immature melon has fine hairs and this fuzziness reminds some people of snow. Once it matures, it loses its hair and gets a waxy coating.
Winter melon can grow to more than a foot in length and weigh more than 40 pounds. It resembles a large watermelon with its oblong shape and dark green, waxy skin, although some are more round in shape. Unlike a watermelon, the flesh and seeds are white, it's relatively tasteless, and it cannot be eaten raw. Instead, recipes with winter melon often call for steaming, simmering, or parboiling, but be careful not to overcook it—it can get mushy. You can find winter melon in the produce department already sliced and packaged, which makes them more convenient and economical.
How to Cook With Winter Melon
The skin and seeds need to be removed when preparing winter melon, including the soft flesh that holds the seeds. Once the harder white flesh is cubed or sliced, it can be steamed, simmered, braised, or parboiled and added to stir-fries. It becomes softer when cooked and, due to its mild flavor, it's often seasoned with strong spices and herbs.
Best used in soups, winter melon absorbs the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with. In a popular banquet version of winter melon soup, the fruit serves as a cooking vessel, main ingredient, and the serving dish. The soup is steamed inside a whole winter melon and served that way at the table.
Winter melon is used in sweets as well and is often diced and candied. It's also an ingredient for beverages, including sweetened yogurt smoothies in which it is blended with stronger tasting fruits like watermelon. When making winter melon juice, the pureed flesh is strained and then seasoned with lemon juice, pepper, and salt.
What Does It Taste Like?
Mature winter melon has a very mild taste, while the immature fruit is sweet. It's often compared to the taste of cucumber, with a refreshing, almost grassy flavor. If you've eaten the white rind of a watermelon, it's nearly identical to winter melon. For this reason, watermelon rind is sometimes used as a substitute when winter melon can't be found.
Winter Melon Recipes
A famous Chinese dish is winter melon soup, where slices of the melon are simmered in a broth with Chinese dried mushrooms, ham, and seasonings. You will find it in recipes for the Chinese wife cake (also called sweetheart cake) and the Indian treat petha, a soft, translucent candy from Agra, and in curries. In the Philippines, it is candied and called kundol. This is used as a filling for bakpia (or hopia), which are sweet bean-filled pastries, similar to moon cake. The winter melon can be substituted in recipes that call for zucchini, and it can be a nice addition to stir-fry noodle dishes.
Where to Buy Winter Melon
Winter melon can be found in most Asian supermarkets year-round. Whole winter melon might be available while in season. However, since this is such a large fruit, it's easier to find it already cut into pieces. Whether whole or sliced, the fruit should be firm and unbruised. Home gardeners from warmer climates find winter melon easy to grow because the seeds are readily available, and the plants are not too fussy. These long-trailing annuals need lots of space to grow, and they thrive in areas with consistent 80-degree temperatures.
Whole winter melon will keep in a cool place for months and likely up to one year. Once sliced, the melon will last for a couple of days if placed in a plastic bag in the crisper section of the refrigerator. Winter melon can be preserved by pickling as well.
Nutrition and Benefits
Winter melon is used in Chinese medicine as an herbal treatment for mild urinary tract problems. It is high in vitamin B and dietary fiber.
According to Chinese medicine, foods have a thermal property—warming, cooling, or neutral. Winter melon is considered to be a yin or cooling food. In addition to counteracting urinary problems, yin foods are said to be a good balance against fever, swelling, high blood pressure, and constipation, among other conditions.
Winter Melon vs. Fuzzy Melon
The young winter melon's fuzzy appearance means it's sometimes called fuzzy melon. However, there is an actual fruit called the fuzzy melon that's used in Chinese cooking and goes by the name of mo gwa or mo qua. While the two gourds are related, the fuzzy melon looks more like a hairy zucchini and is significantly smaller than the winter melon.
Winter melon and fuzzy melon are often used interchangeably in recipes. The fuzzy melon has a similar mild flavor that also absorbs the taste of other ingredients when cooked in soups and stir-fries.