Calabash – a gift of nature with many uses
Calabash is a climbing plant of the Cucurbitaceae family, found in the tropical sub-equatorial zone. Some of its varieties are suitable for consumption. Since ancient times, it has been a valuable raw material for an entirely different reason. The ripe fruit of the plant is characterised by a hard and robust shell. Fans of yerba mate appreciate mate gourds made from it. However, there are many more uses. The dried and hollowed-out fruit can be a vessel, a container and even a musical instrument!
Calabash – what is it?
There is more than one meaning behind the word “calabash”. First and foremost, the word describes a group of tropical climbing plants, from the cucurbit family, which originally came from Africa. Today, they are found on practically every continent. The fruit of the calabash most likely arrived in South America drifting across the ocean. What does the calabash look like? Under natural conditions, the calabash can reach up to 9 metres in height. The green vines of the plant surround trees, rocks or buildings. It has large, round leaves with finely serrated edges, the surface of which is covered with fine fuzz. They reach up to 40 cm in width. Calabash bears beautiful white flowers in season. In time, juicy green, “hairy” fruits, similar in shape to pears, are born. The young fruits are edible and resemble zucchinis in taste. They are often used in cooking and are very popular especially in Asia, including Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisine. They are a common ingredient in many dishes there. The calabash ripens quickly. The fruit increases in volume intensively and the characteristic green colour fades over time. As they ripen, they lose their moss, harden and take on a yellowish brown colour. The calabash fruit can reach up to 80 cm in length and 20 cm in width. When dried, the outside of the fruit becomes a thicker, hard shell, while the inside of the fruit remains hollow. It is this hard, thick shell that has led the calabash to find many uses, not only in culinary applications. The method of processing the shell has hardly changed over the centuries. The flesh is removed and the whole is dried and preserved with fat. A plant prepared in this way has found many functions.
Calabash as a yerba mate vessel
For us mateists, the calabash is primarily associated with the yerba mate vessel. The word “calabash” therefore refers not only to the fruit, but also to the vessels made from it for making and drinking our favourite South American brew. What type of calabash is used for drinking mate tea? In South America, it is most popular to drink yerba mate from vessels made from the dried, hollow and woody fruit of Lagenaria siceraria, also known as calabash gourd, bottle gourd or calabaza, from the Spanish word. Calabazas were well known to the Guarani Indians, finding many uses. The drinking vessels for mate tea were called “caiguá” by the Indians. Together with bombillas made of cane or bamboo, they were the indispensable kit of every Indian mateist. In fact, it could be said that the calabash is the most primitive vessel for serving yerba mate infusion. Occasionally, one can come across information that yerba mate drinking vessels are also made from another plant with the Latin name Crescentia cujete, commonly known as “calabash tree”. The fruits of this plant, when ripe, also become hard, somewhat resembling those of the Lagenaria siceraria, but larger and more rounded. The woody shells are used, for example, to make vessels or musical instruments.
Preparation of the calabash for drinking yerba mate – curado
When we delve into the subject of yerba mate, we want to brew and drink it in the same way as its first, original users – the South Americans. We buy a calabash vessel, make our first brew in it and after a few minutes, it turns out that something has gone wrong. A real, natural mate gourd, made from the dried fruit of calabash, is quite a demanding vessel, but regular, proper care for it will pay off – the infusion made in it tastes much better. Before using a calabash to drink yerba mate for the first time, it needs to be properly prepared. This process is called curado – it consists of removing the remaining pulp from the calabash and smoothing its walls. To do this, yerba mate needs to be brewed in the calabash, filling the container about 2/3 full with the dried product, pouring in hot water and leaving it for about 12 hours. We absolutely do not recommend drinking this brew! There will be particles of pulp in it, which can impart an unpleasant bitterness to the taste. Once the calabash has been emptied, it needs to be rinsed and the remaining pulp and seeds gently scraped out, taking care not to destroy the walls. After this process, the calabash needs to be dried well – leaving it with the vent upwards. Curado is carried out once, but calabash for yerba mate needs to be cared for regularly. The woody, dried fruit of the calabash is an organic material and, when exposed to moisture, it can become mouldy, making it unsuitable for drinking the brew. You must therefore remember to discard any leftover mate tea, rinse it thoroughly and dry it well after each use. We do not recommend washing a natural calabash with detergents, as it can take on the unpleasant taste and aroma of washing-up liquid.
What is the best calabash for yerba mate?
Depending on which part of the fruit the calabashes for drinking yerba mate are made from, they can take on different shapes and names. The most popular are the Argentinian calabashes, made from the underside of the fruit, which resemble a bauble – bulbous at the bottom and tapering towards the mouth. A large calabash for yerba mate, placed on a thick leg and finished with a wide collar, is cuia. In such a vessel, fresh, light green, heavily dusted yerba mate chimarrão in Brazil is drunk. Like the cuia, calabashes called porongo are made from the top of the fruit – they are additionally equipped with characteristic metal legs. The cut side of the flat fruit, on the other hand, is used to make galletas – small vessels popular in Brazil and Argentina.
Facing tradition – ceramic calabash for yerba mate
A yerba mate vessel made of natural calabash has its own charm and makes drinking the brew in it magical. Seasoned mate drinkers appreciate the organic character and rustic style of natural mate gourds. However, this type of vessel requires a bit of commitment. It is not likely to be the right type of vessel for forgetful people who like to leave leftovers of yerba mate for the next day, and sometimes even for longer. With the solution comes the ceramic calabash! It is much easier to maintain – it can be washed with other dishes in the dishwasher, using detergents, without worry. It won't get mouldy when exposed to moisture, so nothing happens if you leave residue of mate in it for a few days (although we don't recommend that!) and it doesn't require curado before first use. On top of this, it is much cheaper and available in many designs and colours. It's a great option especially for yerba mate beginners!
What else can be made of calabash fruit?
As we have already mentioned, the young fruit of the calabash is used in many countries in cooking, becoming an ingredient in dishes. In traditional medicine, the fruit, leaves and seeds were used as a laxative, against worms or as a remedy to combat migraine. The thick shell that is formed from the dried, woody calabaza also makes the fruit widely usable. The hard, hollowed-out calabash is used as utensils – bowls, plates, cups, spoons or containers for storing and transporting water and food. Instruments made from calabash are common in many countries. In the case of the marimba, which originated in Africa, the oval shells serve as resonance boxes. Similarly, large calabashes are used in an instrument called veena, which originated in India. The round shells of the calabash also work well as part of various types of stringed or lute-like instruments popular in both Africa and India. The woody fruit of the calabash is sometimes used to make a part of the berimbau, an instrument that is integral to the Brazilian martial art – capoeira. Filled with small stones or seeds, calabashes work well as rattles or maracas. These typical Latin American rattles are among the flagship instruments in Colombian and Cuban music. The calabash is one of the traditional materials used to make the characteristic wide hats in the Philippines. Chinese doctors used to carry medicines in distinctive vessels made of calabash. The woody fruit was also used to make pipes, popular in South Africa. Finally, perhaps a less practical but very important use for folk culture: art. Calabashes, elaborately decorated by the natives, bear witness to the rich folklore of the peoples living in the tropics.
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