Includes Recipe Below
Called Japanese pumpkin, kabocha began its history in Japan where it was favored for its sweetness and pleasing texture. Researching its arrival in this country proved to be a challenge, but, fortunately, a very kind, determined research librarian provided us with some of the information for this article.
About fourteen years ago, the Sakata Seed Company, an enterprising California grower, planted this unique squash to provide Japan with a steady supply. Japan, with its limited agricultural land, bought the entire crop. Sakata continued to plant the squash and even expanded its pastures into Mexico. Since the Japanese prefer big squashes, the smaller ones were left to be sold in the Los Angeles market. Sakata produces approximately 110 tons of kabocha annually, making about 10 to 15% available for savvy American consumers to enjoy.
Kabocha's hard, deep green skin, boasts exceptional flavor to those who have had the pleasure of tasting its succulent, naturally sweet flesh. Kabocha, pronounced kah-bow-cha, is even sweeter than butternut squash, though we've encountered the occasional one that forgot to be sweet. The flavor and texture of the Japanese pumpkin is likened to that of a sweet potato crossed with a pumpkin. We had the pleasure of first tasting kabocha when we traveled to New Zealand several years ago. There we enjoyed it simply as "pumpkin" in many soups as well as side dishes.
Kabocha squashes are available all year round, but we found that the best flavored ones are harvested in the late summer and early fall. Like many winter squashes, kabocha can vary in size with the average weighing two to three pounds, but we've encountered larger ones as well. You can easily recognize a kabocha by its dark green color with some celadon colored stripes and a dull surface. Similar in shape to a pumpkin, kabocha is a bit more squat, has a very short grey stem, and is more dense than a pumpkin because of its smaller cavity. The firm flesh inside is an intense yellow-orange color.
The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service from the North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, suggests that kabocha squashes can be kept at room temperature for up to a month without refrigeration. Sakata recommends not refrigerating the uncooked pumpkin. After cooking, however, the leftovers must be refrigerated.
An abundance of beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, is kabocha's prime nutrient, along with vitamin C, iron and potassium. Also present are folic acid, calcium, and trace B vitamins.
TO BAKE: Simply wash the squash and place, whole on a baking dish. Bake at 400 for 50 to 60 minutes. To shorten the baking time, cut the squash in half with a very firm knife. Sakata recommends placing the knife or cleaver on the squash, slightly off center to avoid the stem. Then, with a hammer or mallet, pound the knife where the blade joins the handle until the squash splits in half. Scoop out the seeds, brush cut areas with a little canola oil and place cut side down on a lightly oiled baking dish. The squash bakes in about 40 to 50 minutes at 400 (375 for pyrex.) The flesh can then be scooped out with a large spoon. The cooked kabocha is so deliciously sweet that it needs none of the usual fats and sweeteners traditionally added to bland squashes.
TO STEAM: Use a very firm chef's knife to cut squash in half, scoop out seeds, and lay cut side down on cutting board. Japanese and Southeast Asian cooks prefer to leave the skin on the squash. However, if you choose to remove the skin, here's what to do: Using both hands with the knife in a horizontal position, peel off the skin by holding the blade away from the body and using a pushing motion to cut. Cut squash into cubes and place in a steamer with sufficient water. Turn heat to high and steam for 7 to 10 minutes.
TO BRAISE: Cut into cubes as above and add to stews or soups the last 10 minutes of cooking.
The following soup recipe is a seasonal favorite that combines sweet and savory flavors to make the perfect duo to quell hunger pangs. This creation instantly satisfies and comforts, but more than that, leaves one with thoughts of a second bowl later on.