As the weather turns colder and winter announces its arrival, a small, green and orange vegetable appears on plates in a variety of dishes. Japan is no stranger to pumpkin season!
Unlike the larger, orange Halloween pumpkins you might be familiar with, kabocha are small and dark green with a hard, tough rind. Inside, however, they are more familiar: deep orange in color and sweet in taste.
With that in mind, here are a few things you ought to know about the humble kabocha:
Japanese pumpkins have a light, sweet taste and a sweet potato like texture. Thus they pair well soy sauce, sake, mirin, and dried fruits like raisins and pomegranate. They work well as a base for more complex dishes or as a stand alone side.
Japanese pumpkins are versatile and easy to cook. (Although caution should be used when first cutting into one as the rind can be quite hard) Popular uses include deep frying as tempura, roasting on a grill (as with yakiniku), pureed into a soup, or mashed into a salad (think potato salad).
Although they can be put into pies or other desserts, it is far more common to find them as a main ingredient. You might find a tart or pie in a bakery or cafe, but they will not be as sweet as those found in, for example, the United States. To that point, the onslaught of pumpkin as a flavoring agent for mocha lattes and the like has not really gained purchase in Japan outside of chain coffee shops.
When shopping, look for a pumpkin that feels heavy for its size. Make sure there are no soft spots in the rind and that the color is a consistent deep green (some varieties have pale, whitish-yellow streaks, which is okay). They are usually available in late summer through late autumn and store very well in cool, dry places.
Kabocha can not be eaten right off the vine. They must be harvested and stored for about two weeks to fully mature before they are suitable for cooking.
Healthwise, Kabocha pumpkins are rich in beta carotene, iron, and fiber. Likewise, they contain high percentages of vitamins A and C. They have roughly 450 calories per squash and are a tad high in carbohydrates. One squash averages two to three pounds when mature.
Like many other Japanese fruits and vegetables, the humble kabocha goes by many names outside Japan, including kabocha squash, Asian winter squash, and, of course, Japanese pumpkin. In Japan, however, the word kabocha refers to both small, green pumpkins as well as large, orange ones.
The kabocha was introduced to Japan during the 16th century by Portuguese traders in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki. The traders brought it with them from Cambodia and originally introduced it as Cambodia abóbora, or Cambodian pumpkin.
Disappointingly, perhaps, kabocha are not traditionally carved and set out as jack-o-lanterns. However, due to the recent popularity of Halloween in Japan, carved kabocha (and turnips, too!) can sometimes be seen on fences and posts during Autumn.
So, whether you’re a resident, or just passing through, do yourself a favor and order some kabocha from the menu. Fried, roasted, steamed, or grilled, you won’t be disappointed.