Decolonizing Filipinx Foods: Kundol
There it is. Did you catch it? The ground wakes up, the trees exhale. Sunlight creeps in, mornings tinged by incremental warmth. After years of drought, California was drenched by heavy winter rains, awakening dormant seeds. Superblooms lit the desert in a fleeting fire of color, petals, and scent, luring admirers like bees to honey. Rivers rose, heavy with silt. Even if your corner of home still harbors traces of snow and ice, you’ll find that green life mists the gray naked branches and pushes through sidewalks. Spring is here. She is hope, she is change, and she is persistent.
Living in the diaspora, I have often wondered what my DNA could say about experiencing seasons in ways the ancestors never did. Living in the city, spring’s rhythms can feel distant, and take effort to tune in (beyond all the Peeps marshmallows flooding grocery shelves). In the Philippines’ there isn’t a “true” spring, at least not how those of us on the mainland US might recognize them. Islands are governed by a different rhythm: the push and pull of wet and dry, of typhoons and wind, of cooler and hotter months; its own sequencing harvest and planting, of migrating fish, of tidal ebb and flow. All of these - land, heat, water - imprinted themselves onto our languages. I’ve sought Tagalog words to glimpse this rhythm: tagtuyo (the dry season), tag-araw (the sunny season), tag-init (the hot season), taglagas (the cold season).
Tagsibol (the leaf sprouting season) might be the closest approximation to where we stand now, at the doorway of spring. Along with language, we can see the pace of seasons encoded into recipes, and embedded into the living tissue of seeds and food. Marking this season is an ancestral practice I want to reclaim in new ways - to taste heritage, and feed what we want to bring to life now.
I found that opportunity with the help of an unexpected plant: kundol, or wintermelon. Just before the spring equinox, I connected with a brilliant friend and farmer (and kundol grower), Kristyn Leach of Namu Farms. Kristyn farms by hand in the “old-fashioned” way and draws from a deep reservoir of Korean natural farming, along with an infectious passion to preserve, share and revitalize heirloom seeds. Beyond channeling produce to its sister restaurant, the farm shares in community: justice-oriented youth, people of color, Korean and Asian American organizations. Through a small-scale farm, Kristyn has planted large-scale magic. Whenever I’ve visited the farm, I’m struck not only by the ways it challenges the corporate takeover of agriculture by its very existence, but serves as a vessel for beloved food and seed stories, a rich knowledge sharing that can only happen in community.
Kristyn had news to share: the heirloom wintermelon from the farm would be ready to plant in April. As part of her farm’s new Second Generation seed project, could we gather with Filipino American youth and families to collect its seeds, share food stories, and taste kundol? Of course we said yes.
Tucked between two quiet street corners is the vacant lot undergoing transformation by Filipino Advocates for Justice, through garden project rooted in bayanihan, human rights, a connection to land and climate justice. After a sunny morning with the youth, clearing the land and getting ready for planting, we set up a makeshift kitchen. Kristyn had brought along a hefty sample of her farm's kundol for a seed saving demo and tasting.
Together, we opened the heavy round kundol, revealing ice green flesh and a cotton-like covering over its seeds. This particular variety, Kristyn shared, was very rare and so the best of its seeds could be grown to regenerate future seed stock. The youth carefully separated and processed each seed, bringing it one step closer to planting the following month. The melon itself became our lunch – cooked on the spot into a savory soup. With our hands busy, we tapped into our family memories of kundol, surfacing memories as well as questions. And as we saved seeds and fed ourselves, we made a new memory together.
If you’ve ever heard – or learned - the Filipino children’s song Bahay Kubo, you may remember this line: “kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa,” a lyrical role call naming several gourds common to Filipino cuisine. But do you remember the taste and the heft of the underdog kundol?
Kundol is dense, shaped round as the moon or an elongated cylinder. Smooth skinned, some varieties covered with a protective, silky dusting – fine like talcum powder. It is a once-familiar native vegetable that has become something of a rare crop in the contemporary Filipino diet. Today, it is regaining some level of appreciation – as an easy to grow and high yielding crop, highly versatile ingredient, and for its long storage capacity, providing freshness even during the less productive months.
Kundol cultivation was thought to begin in China, introduced and grown across Asia – from India to Japan to Thailand – and into the Filipino garden, palate and cuisine. The flesh can be used in soups and stews, candied (imagine hopia, or sugared as minatamis na kundol), and also has edible sprouts, tendrils, and seeds. Kundol provides a surprising amount of vitamin C, high fiber, and is considered a cooling food, with a high water and fiber content.
Recipe: Ginisang Kundol with Noodles
Raw, kundol is crisp and refreshing, somewhat like a cucumber. Cooked, it is tender and mild-flavored, ideal for taking on the richer flavors of a soup or stir fry. If you can’t find kundol in your area, or wish to try a variation, this soup can be adapted to use upo (bottle gourd), green papaya (tinola!), patola (sponge gourd/luffa), or zucchini. For vegetarians, you can adapt this with mixed mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, and trumpet) instead of chicken, plus firm tofu for protein.
1 Tbsp oil
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1 finger of ginger, peeled
½ lb chicken, cut into 1” pieces
2 oz fine vermicelli rice noodle, soaked in hot water, or miswa (wheat noodle)
Soy sauce or patis, to taste
2 cups kundol, peeled, cut into 1” chunks
2-3 cups stock or water
Toppings: scallions, garlic chips, lemon or calamansi
Sautee the onions, garlic and ginger. Add the chicken and lightly brown. Cover with the water or stock. Simmer 10 minutes. Add the kundol and simmer another 5 minutes until tender. If using the rice noodles, add now and simmer until soft. If using miswa, add just 3 minutes before serving. Season to taste. Best served right away.
* I had a recent exchange with decolonial writer and teacher Leny Strobel sparked by the question: what is the taste of spring? Leny beautifully shared from a life lived, half in the Philippines, and half in northern California, reflecting on the seasons in homeland and diaspora, colonization and shifting values of traditional foods, and the simple joy of harvest. A beautiful quick read, here.
Also: If you want to grow your own kundol, here's a link to wintermelon seeds at Kitazawa Seeds, the seed company Namu Farm collaborates with the regrow seed stock. They turn 100 this year and are an incredible resource for pan-Asian vegetable heirloom seeds, including a number used for Filipino cooking.
Aileen Suzara is an eco-educator, writer, and passionate natural chef. An alumna of UC Berkeley’s Master’s in Public Health Nutrition and CASFS agroecology apprenticeship, Aileen elevates the role of cultural foodways to prevent chronic disease and nurture ecological relationships. Her community collaborations include the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity (FACES), Sama Sama Cooperative, and Asian Farmers Alliance. She founded Sariwa (Fresh) to reconnect land and people through delicious, vibrant food. Raised in the Mojave desert and on the rural Big Island, she now calls the Bay Area home.