The winter melon is an Asian species of vine that produces a very large edible fruit, consumed as a vegetable. It is a particular species, with no other relatives in the Benincasa genus.
The winter melon fruit is found all across South and Southeast Asia and it is widely cultivated, especially in Java. It is also very popular in Japan, which might be the real origin of the plant.
The winter melon fruit is covered with soft hairs when young but later these fall off and it develops an outer layer with a waxy consistence. This protects the fruit for a really long time after harvesting and gives it the alternative name wax gourd. A strange fact about the fruit is that the white flesh is sweet when the fruit is unripe but this no longer happens at maturity, despite it being named a melon. It can reach an impressive size, with an overall length of up to 80 cm. It has broad leaves and large yellow flowers.
Some varieties the muskmelon (Cucumis melo) from the Inodorus group of cultivars are also known as winter melons. However, the more common names for these varieties are honeydew melons or cacabas.
A particular advantage of the winter melon is that it has a very long storage time, of several months, similar to the winter squash. This is unlike most fruits from warm tropical areas, which tend to spoil very fast. The reason for this resilience is the protective coating of wax. For this reason, the Chinese name it the winter melon, because of the fruit's availability during this season, when no other deciduous fruit is preserved. The storage life of the winter melon can actually reach one year. It is also important in India, where it was mentioned as part of the ancient Ayurvedic medical system of the sacred Hindu texts.
Fruits, leaves, seeds, shoots, tendrils.
The winter melon has many uses in the traditional medicine of Asia. One way to get rid of peptic ulcer is to consume the juice during the morning, before eating anything else. Mixing the juice with Indian gooseberries can stop various hemorrhages, like the nasal ones or piles.
Boiling the pulp creates a paste after mixing it with sugar. The result is very sticky and has a high caloric content, being very useful for people who recover from diabetes or tuberculosis and who need to increase in weight quickly. The fruit also has diuretic properties and the constant urination removes various toxins from the body.
Even in the ancient texts, it was known to provide an immediate energy boost after consumption. It is sometimes unsuited during winters since it cools the body. However, this can be prevented by adding a bit of lemon to the pulp. The sacred Ayurvedic treatments mainly prescribed the winter melon to people who lacked appetite. The ancients also believed that the juice was able to eliminate kidney stones.
The seeds of the winter melon are cooked with milk, a dish considered to be a remedy for male reproduction problems by increasing sperm count and its mobility. Mizo tribesmen in North-East India use the juice against dysentery, in both minor and severe forms.
Both the skin and the seeds can be boiled with coconut oil. This produces an oily mixture that is used as a cosmetic for the hair. It can fight baldness by boosting hair growth rate and also eliminates dandruff. The seeds can also be turned into a powder, useful against damaged or cracked lips.
A traditional way to prepare the fruit in Asia is as a candy, eaten during the New Year. It is an important ingredient in many local festive dishes, for example the moon cakes prepared in China during the Festival of the Moon. Petha, a very popular dish in Pakistan and some areas of India, also uses the winter melon as an ingredient. It is included in spicy curry in India and also prepared as a fruit juice. The juice is normally mixed with caramel sugar and is famous for its distinctive taste. It is commercially available as winter melon punch or tea in many markets of South-eastern Asia.
Parts of the young winter melon plant, including the leaves, tendrils and new shoots, are edible as green vegetables. Mixed with salt and lime juice, the pulp can also be turned into a smoothie. The pulp is an ingredient in many regional recipes. It is suitable for simmering, braising, parboiling or steaming. However, it is most commonly used to prepare a very spicy soup, with seasonal herbs added to boost the moderate taste of the pulp. It can also be transformed into candies or pickles. The biggest advantage of the fruit is the very long shelf life, which makes it available during the whole year.
The Vietnamese call the winter melon fruit bí đao and mainly consume it in stews and soups. Some of the local dishes are also believed to have medical properties. For example, the winter melon and pork ribs soup is given to nursing mothers, in order to stimulate lactation.
An interesting dish of the Chinese cuisine is winter melon soup served in the carved melon, after removing the waxy protective layer. The soup is typically prepared by stir frying the pulp with bones of pork or beef. It is traditionally consumed as filling for lǎopó bǐng (sweetheart cake) and táng dōng guā, which is a specific type of winter melon candy traditionally eaten during New Year festivities. During the Moon Festival, celebrated in both China and Taiwan, the filling of the moon cakes consists of winter melon pulp.
The cuisine of the Philippines uses the fruit as a pastry filling for hopia and also as kundol, which is yet another variety of candied pulp. The locals also eat it as guisado (stir fries) and sabaw (savory soup).
Winter melon is an ingredient of many local curry recipes of South India. A special regional dish combines winter melon with buttermilk and curds into a liquefied form.