Westerners know the loofah as a bathroom accessory, a natural sponge for scrubbing and cleaning. To the Chinese, however, it offers both food and functionality.
The loofah grows fast and in spring it is sowed as soon as the first frosts are over. Before long, its graceful tendrils wind upward, reaching to the warming sun,
By early summer, the flowers are blooming and the tiny gourds would form. It only takes about one or two weeks for the fruit to mature, so farmers need to know the exact time to harvest. Too early, and the loofah will not be sweet enough. Too late, it becomes tough and fibrous and can only be left on the vine to dry into sponges.
There are two main varieties of edible loofah grown in China.
South of the Yangtze River, the loofah has a rough skin with vertical ridges running down the fruit. This is the angled loofah, more popularly grown in the southern provinces.
Up north, a more drought-resistant loofah has lost its spines, but not its tough skin. The smoother skinned loofah is the variety grown in northern provinces.
Because it fruits in summer, the loofah has become the vegetable of the season.
In the north, it is thinly sliced and fried with scrambled eggs for an easy vegetable dish. It is cut into wedges and made into soup with a sprinkle of salted krill.
But it is in the southern provinces that the loofah, also known as silky gourd or sigua, comes into its own.