Home & Garden

Like squash? Next year, consider the luffa

Wei Fei Chen carries luffa he has harvested in his backyard in McCandless, Pa.
Wei Fei Chen carries luffa he has harvested in his backyard in McCandless, Pa. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To most Americans, luffa is a sponge. But to Wei Fei Chen, it’s a wonder gourd that’s fun to grow and good to eat.

“You can saute or steam it with tofu, shrimp, chicken. Sometimes I put it in soup with noodles. So many dishes you can cook with luffa,” said Chen, 41, a native of Fuzhou, China.

It’s a short trip from his backyard to his kitchen in McCandless, but it can seem long when you’re weighed down with three or four luffas ranging in length from 2 to nearly 4 feet. That’s how many luffas and fuzzy gourds Mr. Chen was picking each day from late July through early September.

He never expected to get so many gourds of such size. It didn’t happen last year when he planted the seeds he bought in New York and Toronto’s Chinatowns.

Apparently, this summer was perfect for luffas, a member of the cucumber family. But Wei thinks his tunnel had something to do with it.

Instead of growing the gourds, tomatoes and squash on a wooden shed as he had done last year, he spent $1,000 on steel fencing and constructed a 40-foot-long structure along the back of his yard at the edge of a steep hillside.

“I was so mad when he started putting up the fencing. It was so ugly,” said his wife, Lailanie.

In May, he planted out the 4-inch seedlings he had started indoors. He added some new topsoil and began regularly fertilizing with Miracle-Gro. But the biggest difference, he said, was the water. He looped a series of soaker hoses on the floor of the tunnel and turned it on 10 minutes a day, every day. When he couldn’t do it, their children, Caleb, 9, and Abigail, 11, ran the water or a neighbor pitched in.

(Luffa grows best in zones 6 and 7. Much of southern Idaho is in zone 7.)

The vines quickly covered the tunnel with huge leaves and yellow flowers. Wei Chen started picking July 25 and was amazed to find fruit three times the size he was used to. The biggest was nearly 4 feet, almost as tall as Caleb.

“If you see them in a Chinese market, they come from California,” Wei Chen said. “They’re very small and they cost $3 a pound.”

Several weekends, he picked two dozen of the green giants. So what did he do with them all?

“We’ve been eating it for lunch and dinner,” Lailanie Chen said.

She and their kids admitted they were a little tired of eating luffa, which is tender if picked early enough. During a reporter’s visit, Wei Chen peeled a 2-footer like a cucumber and sliced it into strips. He boiled it for a few minutes, then sauteed it in a large pan with eggs, tofu, ginger, salt and white pepper. It was delicious.

Wei Chen, the owner of Pittsburgh’s Hunan Bar, said his customers didn’t take much notice when he put luffa in a soup with pork. But when the college students returned in the fall, the soup sold very well.

Some people have suggested he sell his surplus to a supermarket. He shook his head.

“I only do it for fun,” he said.