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Calabash – what is it and how are calabash gourds made?

2023-09-18
Calabash – what is it and how are calabash gourds made?

Every yerba mate lover knows that a good yerba mate gourd is the key to being able to comfortably enjoy their favourite drink. The pioneers of yerba mate, having no ceramic cups, coped differently. Vessels were made from calabash, a pumpkin-like plant. Why did it work well as a yerba mate cup and how were the vessels made?

Summary:

  1. Pear or pumpkin? What is a calabash?
  2. Calabash and its many uses
  3. From seed to calabash gourd. How are yerba mate cups made?
  4. Different shaped yerba mate calabashes
  5. Which yerba mate calabash to choose?

Pear or pumpkin? What is a calabash?

The calabash is a climbing plant included in the squash family (Cucurbitaceae). Originally native to Africa, its natural habitat is the subtropical zone, where a hot and humid climate prevails. Today, its different varieties can be found on practically every continent. Under natural conditions, the plant can reach up to 10 metres in height. The vines wrap around trees, shrubs and even buildings. It has large, rounded leaves, and when it blooms, its stems are decorated with white flowers. What is most valuable about the calabash is its fruit – when young, it is lusciously green in colour, covered in fine fuzz and resembles a pear shape. The fruit ripens very quickly. They increase in volume, their colour fades into a yellow-brown hue and the surface becomes smooth, losing its fuzz. Mature calabash fruits can be up to 80 centimetres long and 20 centimetres wide. When they dry out, their exterior turns into a thick, hard shell, while the interior remains (almost completely) hollow. The woody fruits have a distinctive shape – they are cracked and rounded at the bottom and taper at the top. Because of its shape, the calabash is otherwise known as a bottle gourd or pumpkin.

The multifaceted calabash plant

Some of the calabash varieties are edible. Especially in Asian cuisine, the calabash is a very popular ingredient in many dishes. Thanks to the incredibly hard shell of the ripe fruit, the calabash has gained many uses, not only in cooking. Properly prepared calabashes can be used in 1000 different ways! It can serve as a musical instrument – the large, hollow shell works well as a sound box. Smaller, dried calabashes, on the other hand, serve as rattles when filled with seeds. In Africa and South America, the indigenous people used the calabash for everyday use, such as bowls, plates and water containers, but also for decorative jugs and caskets. The calabashes are used to make bongs – water pipes and smaller pipes for smoking tobacco. Large calabashes decorated with transparent coloured glass are also used to create decorative lampshades – a characteristic design element of a popular restaurant chain with a mystical Egyptian creature in its name, which takes the form of a lion with a human head. And, most importantly for us mateists, calabashes are used to make yerba mate cups.

Yerba mate cups made of calabash

From seed to calabash gourd. How are yerba mate cups made?

Growing calabash is not the easiest thing to do – it's quite a moody plant that sometimes bears lots of fruit and sometimes won't bear any. It likes warmth, plenty of sunshine and a solid dose of water. Mature calabash fruits take the shape of a large, elongated pear. They are light green or slightly yellow in colour and have a hard skin. After harvesting, the fruits finally ripen in a warm and airy place for about two weeks. They are dried whole – when cut, they can wrinkle and lose their shape. During the drying process, the outer part turns brown and the whole fruit becomes light as a feather. Once the calabash is completely dried, the treatment is to remove the inside – the remains of the pulp and seeds. The calabash prepared in this way has found use as a vessel for water, food and, thanks to its specific shape, as a cup for yerba mate. Thanks to the gently tapered top edge, it is possible to make a mound of dried yerba mate in the calabash. Bottle pumpkins are also used to make instruments – some tribes used the fruit of this plant to make, for example, the Guatemalan marimba or the Cuban guiro. Interesting fact: the calabash can even be grown in your own home, and you can easily get the seeds in almost any garden shop.

Different shaped yerba mate calabashes

The calabash fruit was used as a drinking vessel for yerba mate hundreds of years ago by the Guarani Indians, who inhabited the countries we know today: Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The woody, hard shell of the fruit was quite strong, held water well and was very light. To this day, mateists there are still keen to use such natural vessels. Depending on which part of the fruit the mate calabash is made of, different types are distinguished. The most popular shape is the so-called “Argentine calabash”, which can also easily be found here. It is made from the lower part of small fruits, which are shaped like pears. The top part of the larger fruit, which has a characteristic constriction, is used to make vessels called cuia and porongo. Cuias are popular mainly in Brazil. They are used to drink chimarrão. They have much thicker walls and a wide collar. Porongo, most commonly found in Argentina and Uruguay, are slightly smaller than cuia, more rounded and usually fitted with metal legs. The last type of calabash is the galleta – made from a flat fruit.

What is the best calabash for yerba mate?

Mate gourds made from calabash fruit has been prepared and used for a very long time – many South Americans still prefer this particular type. It is by far the most classic way to prepare yerba mate. Nowadays, however, ceramic calabashes, which only started to be used during the colonisation period, have become much more popular due to their comfort of use and ease of cleaning. Their shape usually refers to traditional vessels, which makes it easier to prepare the yerba mate infusion. Which calabash should you choose to drink mate tea? In our shop, in addition to ceramic calabashes, you will also buy wooden mates, made of palo santo wood, guampas and thermal mate gourds made of stainless steel. Choose the one that suits you best!


Source of information:

  1. Wikipedia: Calabash.

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