When you think of fruit and vegetable carving, you either picture a jack-o-lantern or a piece of vegetable such as a radish carved into a fanciful shape such as a rose or leaf. No matter what type of carving you participate in, you are undertaking traditions that are hundreds of years old.
The history of carving intricate shapes out of fruits and vegetables can be traced back to Asia, though no one is certain of the exact source. China, Thailand and Japan all claim to have been the first to invent vegetable carving. In all three countries, carving vegetables is a high form of art. In Ancient Europe, vegetable carving sprang out of the ancient Celtic religion. During the longest night of the year, ancient Celts believed that spirits could return to the land of the living. During this time, the Celts hollowed out large turnips and carved grinning faces onto them and placed a candle in each vegetable. They then put the lanterns in windows and doorways to welcome the spirits.
The traditional method of carving a pumpkin is freehand with a standard kitchen knife. In recent years, pumpkin carving companies have turned pumpkin carving into an industry by manufacturing patterns and tiny saws for carving intricate pumpkin designs. Asian carving tools have been around for much longer. Tools for carving and shaping vegetables in the eastern style include thin carving knifes of various lengths, peelers and ball scoops as well as paint brushes, food dye colors and a set of V and U shaped gouges.
Carving gourds during the holidays once held religious significance, though now it is considered to be an act of fun for children. Eastern vegetable carving is a cultural art form. In Thailand, it is taught in primary school. Fruit and vegetable carving serves to make food more appetizing, easier to eat and more attractive.
Although early Celtic people used large turnips for carving, the North American pumpkin has become the standard medium for carving Jack’o lanterns. The pumpkin, which is actually a fruit, is a large gourd with a pulpy inside and a hollow rind. This makes it suitable for hollowing out and carving. Though the pumpkin is not native to Asia, it may also be used in eastern carving to create baskets or other containers.
Eastern carving is not limited to pumpkins or other rind fruits and vegetables the way that holiday carving can be. Carving vegetables in the eastern style may be carried out on all vegetables and fruits ranging from small chili peppers to tomatoes and large melons. The shapes that you carve are only limited by your skill, imagination and the size of the vegetable.