There aren't too many foods that are equally at home in a stir-fry or a shower caddy. But on a trip to New York City last week, I spotted an ingredient on a Chinese restaurant menu that I would normally associate with smoothing rough elbows: loofah.
Until then, I had no idea that loofah was edible, much less worthy of adding to a soup. In fact, I didn't even know it was a plant, at least not a terrestrial one. I was under the common (I hope) misconception that the popular exfoliating device came from the sea, like a natural sponge does. But, as I learned later, the loofah is actually a cucurbit, the family of plants that includes cucumbers and gourds (it's sometimes even referred to as the sponge gourd, or Chinese okra). It grows in tropical regions and its fruit is common in many Asian cuisines. The form familiar to most Westerners is the dried fibrous part of the fruit.
Of course, I didn't know any of this when I encountered it on the Chinese menu. It took a leap of faith to order a side of sauteed loofah, but out of curiosity—and for the sake of the blog—I had to do it. My mother, who was my dining companion, was equally ambivalent.
We weren't sure what to expect; the typical shower loofah looks about as appetizing as a hair net, or a dish towel. I assumed it would not be so tough and fibrous, but would it be spongy?
After all the speculation and trepidation, it was a little anticlimactic—and a relief—when a plate of what resembled stir-fried zucchini was brought to our table. The first bite was even more reassuring: it wasn't at all spongy, and it had a mild flavor and crunch that reminded me of cucumber. I was pleasantly surprised, even though the sauce it was served in was a little bland and oily for my taste.
When I returned home and did some research, I unearthed some more interesting-sounding recipes: Epicurious has one for loofah bread-and-butter pickles; stir-fried sponge gourd with egg and prawn, at ucancookthai.com, looks tasty; and this South Asian dish, stuffed sponge gourd, is intriguing. I'll have to save them for another trip to a metropolitan area, though. The nearest Asian market to my rural home is a couple hours away, and the only loofah I can find in my local supermarket is in the shower products aisle.