Waiter, There's a Sponge In My Soup! (Or, What I Learned From My Mom This Week, Part I)

I just spent a few days at home with my parents in LA. My father picked me up at LAX around 5:30 p.m., but because of a bad accident on the 405 freeway, we had to take a scenic detour via Pacific Coast Highway, and by the time we finally arrived at the house at 7:00, I was absolutely starving. Fortunately, my mother had dinner waiting.

My mother is an amazing cook. One of the delicious dishes she had whipped up was what she referred to as gourd soup. It was mild, but very sweet and delicious. I asked her if she had used chicken stock in the soup and she said no, it was absolutely nothing but gourds, salt, ginger, and dried scallops. I asked her what type of gourd she had used (she told me the name in Taiwanese but it didn't mean anything to me), and she said I knew what gourd she was talking about, it was also used as a sponge. My parents just returned from a trip to Las Vegas and a stay at the Wynn, and my father got up from the dinner table and returned with a Wynn-branded loofah sponge. This is the gourd, my parents insisted.

At this point I was completely confused and I thought my parents must be mistaken. I was eating loofah?! But after dinner, I looked up "loofah" on wikipedia, and lo and behold, the entry describes a gourd that grows from a vine, which is eaten as a vegetable in Asia and Africa, and also used as a bath sponge when it's been processed to remove everything but the xylem. Before I left, my mother made the soup again, and I stood by to take notes and watch how it was done.

First, the gourds themselves. The gourds were dark green with slight ridges, over a foot long, and they were soft to the touch. My mother peeled the gourds, sliced them about 1/4" thick and quartered each slice. The inside of the gourds was bright white and very spongy to the touch.

In a hot wok with some oil, my mother sauteed some sliced ginger and added some rehydrated dried scallops. Then she added the sliced gourds, added salt, stirred a bit, and put a lid on the wok. Five minutes later, the gourds had released enough liquid to make soup. That was it, the entire recipe. In the pictures below, the one on the left shows the gourds right after my mother added them to the wok, the middle picture is maybe two or three minutes into cooking, and the final picture on the right is my finished bowl of soup.

The soup is surprisingly flavorful and very sweet. The cooked gourds are very soft and mild. I was amazed that my mother could make a delicious soup so quickly with so few ingredients. (Coincidentally, Mark Bittman published an article in the New York Times that very day about making soups with nothing but vegetables and water... My mother's soup didn't even require water, since the gourds give off so much liquid when they are cooked!)

A couple of days later, my mother made yet another incredible vegetable soup. She had me cream two ears of corn (I have never used a corn creamer before, a contraption that doesn't just cut whole kernels off the cob, but also pulverizes them and releases quite a bit of juice in the process). She added a little bit of water, simmered the mixture on the stove for a bit, and stirred in an egg at the end. She topped it with black pepper before serving, and it was sweet, creamy, and delicious.

When people find out about my mother's amazing cooking skills, they usually ask if I've inherited them from her. The truth is, I don't have my mother's natural cooking talent (then again, she doesn't bake, so I guess each of us has our strengths). My mother almost never uses written recipes, and I find it frustrating to try to learn how she cooks because she usually just throws in a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But I'm trying! And I will definitely add these two soups to my recipe collection!


cluckyducky said…
My mom makes this too. She calls it "Si Gua". Once I had it in a clay pot with clams and shrimp in Taiwan and it was delicious!