Squash, also known as pumpkin, is one of the popular winter foods amongst Japanese people regardless of age and gender. This winter staple is called “kabocha” in Japanese, and it is commonly eaten in various ways. Despite the fact that kabocha squashes available in Japan are mostly imported from either New Zealand or Mexico, these have been used in various Japanese dishes such as kabocha-no-nimono (simmered kabocha) and kabocha tempura. In this article, you can learn about kabocha squash including:
- Basic information on kabocha
- Major recipes of kabocha
- Nihon kabocha vs. Seiyo kabocha
- Nutrition and expected health benefits
- Ways to tell if kabocha is best to eat
What is Kabocha?
Kabocha squash is a vegetable from the family Cucurbitaceae such as cucumber, watermelon, and zucchini. Although it is available throughout the year in Japan, it comes in season during September and December. The reason for this is that pumpkins normally become tastier and more nutritious through several months of after-ripening; in Japan, kabochas are often harvested between summer and early fall, and with two or three months of post-ripening, they become delicious in winter.
If you reside in Japan, you can find kabocha squashes at any supermarket. In contrast, international customers who wish to purchase Japanese squash have the chance to find it at Asian markets. If there are no Asian groceries near you, it may also be sold at some gourmet supermarket chains like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, or Sprouts Farmers Market.
How is Kabocha Eaten? – Standard Recipes
Kabocha is versatile: although you can’t eat it raw because its flesh is too tough, you can freely consume it in any way once you sufficiently cook it. In this section, we would like to introduce some kabocha dishes that you may want to try them at home.
Kabocha-no-nimono (simmered squash) – from household to izakaya pub, a simmered kabocha pumpkin is a standard appetizer among Japanese people. Seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, sake rice wine, and mirin sweet sake, it offers you a wonderful sweet taste and velvet-smooth texture. Sesame seeds, okra, and hijiki seaweed are oft-chosen foods that are added to the simmered kabocha for better taste and health benefits.
Kabocha tempura – deep-fried battered kabocha slices are often seen at the delicatessen section of the supermarket, which indicates that it is another well-eaten kabocha dish. Kabocha gets sweeter and flakier when heated, and the contrast of batter’s crunchiness makes this dish irresistible. You do not have to season kabocha tempura with anything else because it already has a strong sweetness.
Mashed kabocha – also known as kabocha salad, this can be a yummy and healthy appetizer as part of your meal. It is often seasoned with mayo and black pepper just like potato salad, but again, with its distinctive sweet taste you can enjoy this salad without condiments. You can also add canned tuna, nuts, boiled mashed egg, and so on to create a filling and robust side dish.
Kabocha gratin – Japanese pumpkin’s sweet taste goes perfect with salty foods like cheese and bacon. Put these into a gratin dish with some pieces of asparagus, bite-sized chicken, and spinach, and heat them in an oven. Instead of using bakeware, you can put all these ingredients into a hollowed-out pumpkin and make an instagrammable gratin.
Kabocha potage soup – experience a silky-smooth texture and rich taste of kabocha by finely grating its flesh. By adding dice-sized pumpkin pieces into the soup, you can easily create a healthy and wholesome soup that warms your body and mind. You can also add pumpkin guts to enhance its sweetness and thickness by mixing them in a food processor: this helps prevent wasting guts.
Kabocha mochi – a wonderful dish that can be a great snack with alcohol or a solution for combating cravings. Simply mix the mashed pumpkin with starch, milk, and sugar; knead the mixture well and create a small flattened ball; pan fry it until both sides are scorched. You can further enjoy kabocha mochi if you season it with sweet soy sauce, butter, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or anko red bean paste.
Nihon Kabocha and Seiyo Kabocha – Major Two Variations in Japan
Japanese conveniently classify this vegetable as Nihon kabocha (literally means “Japanese squash”) and Seiyo kabocha (likewise, “Western squash”). What may surprise you about them is that it is the Seiyo version that dominates the grocery market in Japan. The reasons are Western cultivar are more resistant to cold and easier to breed, irrespective of the climate and environment. So how are they different from each other? Let’s begin with the Nihon kabocha.
Nihon kabocha was originally imported from Portugal from the mid-16th century, and the one cultivated in Miyazaki Prefecture is famous for its quality that means that many chefs of exclusive Japanese restaurants use it. It usually has a ribbed and oblate spheroid shape with a black or deep dark green skin like a nori seaweed. Its texture is watery and viscous yet light in flavor, so it is ideal for simmering, deep-frying, and stuffing.
In contrast, Seiyo kabocha, was introduced by America at the end of the Edo period (late 19th century), and is regarded as the standard kabocha in Japan. Its shape is round or slightly flattened, and usually features a smooth skin that has a vivid green or pine green color. Seiyo pumpkin features a sweet taste and flaky texture, which are very similar to a sweet potato. It is suitable for steaming, stir-frying, and as an ingredient for sweets.
Health Benefits of Kabocha Squash
It is said that kabocha is one of the most nutritious vegetables available and allows you to supplement with the most essential vitamins and minerals if you eat it on a regular basis. For instance, kabocha is helpful in boosting your immunity and has antioxidant benefits thanks to its rich quantity of beta-carotene. Rich in vitamin E and iron, it can also improve cold constitution, anemia, and the bloodstream. Furthermore, kabocha also is an abundant source of fiber, so you can ameliorate constipation. The other nutritional elements that kabocha contain are vitamin B, vitamin C, and potassium, and what’s more, it is free of fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
Although kabocha flesh is healthy enough by itself, it is recommended to consume its skin, seeds, and guts (stringy parts that comprise the interior of the pumpkin) too, which are often wasted. If you wish to take beta-carotene, you should also consume the pumpkin skin. Likewise, to meet the daily recommended intake of fiber, eat guts too. Seeds are a great source of omega 6 fatty acids, and you can take them like a snack by pan frying or microwaving the seeds until their surface turns brown.
In general, Seiyo kabocha has more nutrition than Nihon kabocha. In fact, Seiyo kabocha contains approximately 5 times as much beta-carotene as its Nihon counterpart. However, one thing you should note is that Seiyo kabocha is higher in calories and sugar than Nihon kabocha, so it is not a suitable food for a ketogenic diet.
Tips for Selecting Good Kabochas
Despite the fact that Nihon kabocha and Seiyo kabocha are different varieties, the ways of identifying good kabocha are almost the same. However, the parts you should check are quite different between the whole pumpkins and those cut into slices. If you wish to buy the kabocha and are lucky enough to find it at the store, the following indicators will be useful in finding the tastiest one:
- Peduncle (stem): find kabocha with a dry and brownish stem like a wine cork. A ripened kabocha never has a fresh green stem.
- Skin: good kabocha basically has hard and glossy skin.
- Color: the darker the tone, the better the quality. For Nihon kabocha, find one with black green or almost black skin while a Seiyo variety, a deep green skin.
- Weight: good kabocha should be heavy. If you hold the kabocha and feel it is heavier than you expect, that’s a sign of goodness.
- Shape: it is said that symmetrically round kabocha tends to be tastier.
- Flesh: well-ripened kabocha has a vivid dark orange or yellow-brown flesh. Make sure to also check whether it looks plump.
- Seeds: the inside of delicious kabocha is usually filled with countless seeds. Also, seeds should be thick and bulging.
- Guts (stringy pulp): the quality sliced kabocha have dewy and meaty guts with few hollows.