It’s Halloween now, and that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite seasonally-symbolic gourd. Overconsumption of pumpkin pie, the shame that comes with ordering pumpkin spice lattes in front of your friends, and the image of marauding pumpkins cackling on the shoulders of horsemen.
Pumpkins come with a pretty heavy cultural baggage in the states, but miles and miles away in China, pumpkins developed under a completely different set of circumstances.
First off, you have to know that everything is a gourd here. Watermelon is the western gourd (西瓜), for example, and pumpkin is the southern gourd (南瓜). The southern gourd is, if you can believe it, not associated with desserts, coffee, or scary glowing faces. Rather, it’s just the basis for a bunch of food you’d never have expected.
THAT doesn’t look like a southern gourd
One of my most vivid encounters with pumpkin was at Chinese New Year, deep out in the semi-rural suburbs on the Pudong side of the river, where I had been invited to celebrate with my friend’s family. That’s the first time I ate 南瓜塌饼, literally, pumpkin sunken cakes.
“This is a Pudong specialty,” my friend told me. “It’s my grandma’s best dish — I’m emotionally attached to it.”
Pumpkin was originally a foreign import in China, showing up in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, probably around the 14th century. It was a weird novelty, this big squash-like thing with orange flesh, so naturally it kind of took off from the start. People immediately began experimenting with different ways to cook it, and richer families would include pumpkins in their offerings to ancestors and spirits.
Today China is the world’s largest producer of pumpkins, and even though Americans and their weird carving binges make them the biggest pumpkin importer, most of China’s harvest is consumed right at home as food. In Chinese medicine they’re considered a warm-property food, and they’re eaten to dispel pathogenic wind, relieve pain, and detoxify. People even use the seeds alone to expel parasites.
Those Chinese cooking methodologies we mentioned panned out into some pumpkin-based dishes we wouldn’t have expected. Here are a few unique selections:
1. Chinese Pumpkin Jam
Oh yeah baby, that pumpkin jam is as good as it looks. Never something we’ve eaten back home, but the sweet pumpkin jam can go on toast or crackers just like your mom used to make. Jam on.
2. Steamed Pumpkin Kuih
What’s a kuih? The name essentially means layered cake. Mix together a pumpkin with a bunch of other assorted things, shape it, and steam it into this tasty, spongey brick.
3. Savory Homestyle Pumpkin Cake
If you’ve had chao nian gao, the fried rice cake popular during the New Year celebrations, this might look familiar: fried, dense, and flattened pumpkin cakes fried with soy sauce. This is the kind of thing your grandma will keep feeding you past the point of comfort.
4. Silky Five Spice Pumpkin Soup
Pumpkin soup isn’t uniquely Chinese, or surprising, but it’s something they do well over here. We’re talking about that warm, creamy, bisque-like soup with spice in all the right places. If that doesn’t dispel your pathogenic wind, we don’t know what will.
5. Steamed Pumpkin Buns
Anyone who’s visited a convenience store in China will recognize these swirly, light steamed buns. A food this common is made immediately more exciting by the pumpkin element — plus it has that “it’s orange so I want to eat it” appeal.
6. Pork Belly Stuffed Pumpkin
This looks delicious. We’ve never had it, but you’d better believe we’re going to. Stew your pork belly while you prepare the pumpkin, then throw it inside with all the juices, and bake it to finish it off. A lot of recipes will even call for a whole stuffed pumpkin to be excessively steamed instead of being baked, but we’ll leave that one for the pros.
China’s love affair with the pumpkin turned it from a dynasties-old imported food into another staple at the center of their culinary tradition. We’ll keep carving ours, but these recipes are some for your gustatory bucket list.