Gardening Halloween Vegetables

A Jack-O’-Lantern with an Oriental Touch

Thai carved pumpkin

By Larry Hodgson

This Halloween, both children and adults will take great pleasure in carving a pumpkin or other squash into a jack-o’-lantern: a gargoylesque face sometimes smiling, but more often grimacing, menacing and scary, that they can light with a candle or a light bulb to attract neighborhood children. The jack-o’-lantern has thus become a kind of illuminated advertisement, telling children disguised as witches, ghouls, superheroes and others which house to visit to fill their bag with treats.

With the gradual decrease in COVID restrictions in so many places, a lot of people are excitedly waiting to renew with this tradition that they had to put aside last year and intend to place a ghoulish jack-o’-lantern at the door of their home to announce: “Come on kids, we have sweets for you!”

The Origin of the Tradition

It hasn’t always been that way.

Carved turnip.
In Old World traditions, a turnip was carved into a lantern. Photo: Bodrugan, Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of the jack-o’-lantern carved out of a vegetable comes from Ireland and Scotland, where large turnips and field beets were carved into lanterns just before All Saints’ Day (the day following Halloween) in memory of the souls of people who died during the year, as this was when they were believed to leave limbo to ascend to heaven. However, the night before they left, All Hallow’s Eve, now Halloween, such souls were believed to wander about and create havoc. So, a terrifying lantern would be put in the window to keep the dead from entering the house. 

It was the Irish who imported this tradition to North America, but with one difference: the pumpkin, a New World vegetable then unknown in Ireland, but which was larger and easier to carve than a turnip, came to replace the latter as the best vegetable for creating a jack-o’-lantern.

By the late twentieth century, the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern and Halloween treats was no longer simply North American, but gaining popularity worldwide.

At least that’s what you’ll read if you research the origin of jack-o’-lanterns. But there is also another origin to this tradition, one that comes from another part of the world completely: the Orient.

Sculpted Vegetables from The Orient

Carved pumpkin in the Thai style
Oriental sculpted vegetables can be very detailed. Photo: Takehiro Kishimoto, gakugakugakugakugakul, Instagram

Long before the Irish, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, and other Asian peoples also used to carve vegetables, but for a completely different purpose. They have a long tradition of using carved vegetables strictly for ornamentation. This use was, in times past, usually restricted for decorating the tables of the elite, often the royal family, and usually associated with various festivals. 

Today, though, carving vegetables is no longer so exclusive. If you travel in the Orient, especially in Thailand where it seems particularly popular, don’t be surprised to find beautiful sculpted vegetables in even fairly modest restaurants: carrots converted into roses, radishes into carnations, pineapples into lanterns and the like. You sometimes see this in the West as well. In fancier Thai restaurants, you’ll sometimes find your plate decorated with a radish carved into a flower, for example. But in Asia, the sculptures are often much more detailed. There are artisans who specialize in vegetable carving, and during festivals, there are competitions and demonstrations of this much-loved art.

Pumpkin carved into a soup tureen
Pumpkin carved into a soup tureen. Photo: Fabulous Foods.

For many Asians, the vegetable sculpture of the highest refinement is the carved soup tureen. On the outside of pumpkins, melons or watermelons, they’ll carve landscapes, paintings and much more. Contrary to our habit of punching holes in our pumpkins to let more of the candlelight shine through, the oriental carved vegetables are left unpierced, because in the hollowed-out fruit will serve to hold a hot or cold soup. 

Pumpkin soup served straight from the pumpkin: isn’t that just the most sophisticated idea?

Intact jack-o’-lantern lit from inside with scary clown face.
Intact jack-o’-lantern lit from inside. Photo: content.instructables.com

If you’re hosting a small, intimate group of vaccinated friends and family this Halloween, why not combine the two traditions? Carve your pumpkin into a scary Halloween face, but without piercing it, then serve a nice hot pumpkin soup inside it (you’ll need another pumpkin or squash to have enough flesh to make the soup). When the service is over, put a candle inside carved pumpkin, place it back on the table, then dim the lights. Even if it isn’t pierced through and through, the jack-o’-lantern will glow for the most beautiful effect. 

Just something you could do to amaze your guests!

Happy Halloween!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

10 comments on “A Jack-O’-Lantern with an Oriental Touch

  1. Lovely article. Glad you mentioned the turnip carving. I remember doing this when I was young. Pretty difficult as the turnips are so hard, no wonder they used pumpkins 🎃

  2. marianwhit

    In my spare time (giggle)…maybe I will try a turnip…have an overabundance of this vegetable this year.

  3. The Asian versions are works of art. It seems a shame that the hours it takes to carve these beautiful images are so fleeting.

  4. These are occasionally seen in various Asian restaurants of the Santa Clara Valley. I thought that it was a Vietnamese tradition because I noticed it in Vietnamese restaurants years ago. However, as you mention, it is more traditional among Thai establishments. When I grew citrus, we sometimes carved the otherwise useless but big fruits of the shaddock stock trees. (Shaddock is the understock for the dwarf citrus trees.) They were green and smelled funny.

  5. WHY IS ‘ORIENTAL’ A RACIST TERM?
    https://www.weareresonate.com/2016/07/oriental-racist-term/
    “How we express ourselves defines how we relate to each other, in trying to escape the racism and inequalities in our history we need new, fresh terms that do not carry with them all that colonial baggage.”

    • I don’t think it is in most contexts. It could be in certain ones. Calling someone an Oriental, for example.

      • Ya, your right. The “N” word is OK in most contexts too. Racist words are racist words no matter how you use them or how fast you say them. Did you even read the article I posted?

  6. Pumpkins you presented look awesome. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about carving pumpkin’s history. It’s not popular in my country but this year children started coming out and ask for treat or treat. It’s nice to see something new in my culture! I also carved pumpkins this year because I know it’s a big fun for my little ones. I also grown few pumpkins this year in my garden because I wanted my children to take part in this whole process. For carving we used this one: https://gardenseedsmarket.com/giant-squash-golias-9-seeds.html , named giant pumpkin!

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