I received an unusual vegetable gift last month – a gourd. It was grown in the marae gardens at Koukourarata/Port Levy, where after producing a terrific crop from seed they were given, the gardeners were wondering how to use their bounty.
I already knew (from the story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai) that gourds were traditionally used as containers for water, and as flotation devices. They were used to hold solid objects as well, and were sometimes carved or painted to make very decorative containers for precious objects. (This art was revived in the 20th century by the artist and gardener Theo Schoon, who provided directions on how to grow and dry gourds. )
Gourds were also used to make musical instruments, including the kōauau ponga ihu or ‘flute played with the nostril’, which makes a sweet, soft sound, and the hue puruhau, which makes a booming sound like a male kakapo. (See photos of and listen to Maori gourd instruments here >)
Gourds also make great percussion instruments, including the ipu heke or big gourd drum which gives a distinctive sound to traditional Hawaiian music. (See them and hear them being explained and played here >) In Africa they put strings on gourds to make a range of instruments, of which the best known is probably the kora, the 21 string harp-lute of West Africa. (Hear and see it played by virtuoso players here >)
But can you eat them? The gourd brought to New Zealand from the Pacific by Maori ancestors is the bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, which is common throughout Asia. It can be eaten fresh when very young, before the shell starts to thicken, but it is not the most commonly eaten gourd. These are the bitter gourd or bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and the luffa or sponge gourd (Luffa cylindrica and L. acutangula; Cantonese name sin qua) which can be eaten fresh when young or grown on until mature then dried to make bath ‘sponges’.