|Tougan (winter melon) at Hosotani's natural farm near Nara.|
Tougan (winter melon) has been on my vegetable radar since our very first days in Japan. Large, oblong, and deep green, it is an attractive vegetable nearly irresistible to a curious eater. A neighbor down the road grows them, and each year I ponder a purchase but never quite got around to it. Their chokubaijo (direct sale stand) is a popular one despite its secluded location along the Tamagawajousui. It's best to arrive early and then politely duke it out with the local grandmothers for the choicest bouquet, pickles, and vegetables.) I've also seen it at various farmers markets around town, but somehow lugged one home. Tomiyama-san, manager of the Earth Day Market, even suggested a warm winter punch recipe made with red wine, cinnamon and other spices, that sorely tempted. Somehow I resisted.
This year, though, Hosotani-san, a natural farmer I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing during a recent visit to Nara Prefecture, gave me one as a parting gift. Even though it was slightly impractical, I took it with only the slightest resistance. It was an opportunity to finally try it, and his farm, which I also had the great pleasure of touring with he and his wife, was awe-inspiring. To say no on practical grounds seemed rude. I received it with gratitude.
My sister-in-law and I prepared it the next day for dinner. Back at Hamma Farm for another round of visiting and helping, the tougan was easy to incorporate into our meals. I made a big batch of asazuke, a word that literally translates as 'morning pickles' but stands for any quick pickle. The remainder landed in the curry we ate for breakfast the next day. Perfect.
A member of the cucurbit family (think cucumber), tougan vines ramble happily over the garden or clamor up a sturdy trellis with ease. The latter makes good use of space. Our neighbor grows a variety of other vegetables under the trellis that like the shade afforded by the tougan vines and leaves. Harvesting is a straight-forward process, too, with unblemished fruits hanging at head height on sturdy stems. (No yellow spot from sitting on the ground.)
Joy Larkcom writes in her classic Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook (2007) that tougan "are the hallmark of Chinese communities all over the world." Like so many other things, though, Japan found this little lovely and made it its own. It gets plopped into soups, including the ever-present miso shiro, stir fries, and more. While its white flesh is reminiscent in taste and texture of a cucumber, it makes it a perfect companion for stronger flavored broths and sauces. (Larkcom also writes that tougan's flowers and leaves can be eaten.) It's smooth, waxy outer surface that sometimes gives it a hazy white look, means that it will keep for upwards of six months in a cool, dry place. Usually harvested in October, a family could count on tougan as a food source during a season of scarcity. Hence, the name 'winter melon.'
1 quarter tougan, peeled and seeded
1.5 teaspoons pickling salt (or to taste)
1 half large yuzu (or to taste)
Cut the tougan into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle with the pickling salt. (Remember to a non-reactive container, such as glass, for making the pickles.) Cut the yuzu into pieces, removing seeds until your patience runs out. Cut togarashi into tiny pieces. Add both to tougan and salt mixture. Massage and mix with fingers until the salt is evenly spread and the salt begins to draw out fluid. Place a heavy lid on top of mixture to encourage liquid formation and pop the mixture in the refrigerator until dinner. Can be made an hour before eating or the day before. Keeps for about three days, give or take.