Washoku Wednesday: Kabocha (Japanese Pumpkin)

(A fall-themed food post from Courtney, who recently left us here in the Land of the Rising Sun but hopefully won’t be leaving the blog just yet!)

Since my last blog post, I made the transition back to the States. It was definitely a bittersweet journey after several years overseas and four years in Japan. But we did return to the States just in time for fall, which means pumpkin EVERYTHING (and that brightened my spirits)!

While I love all things pumpkin, I have also been dreaming of all the kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin, treats I would get in Japan. With its green edible exterior, kabocha doesn’t look like what we think of a pumpkin but the sweet inside is delicious. It has a creamy texture that is different from pumpkin making it great for roasting, simmering or grilling.

Kabocha at a Japanese market
Kabocha at a Japanese market

Japan, however, has not always had pumpkin as part of their diet. The story of how pumpkin made its way to Japan is fascinating. In The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo, she explains:

“How squash traveled all the way from South and Central American to Japan is a fascinating story of exploration, exploitation, culture and linguistics. After discovering the New World, the Spanish brought back pumpkin to Europe, where it was soon introduced to their Portuguese neighbors. The Portuguese brought squash to Japan by way of what is today Cambodia. The Japanese asked the Portuguese the name of this new vegetable. Misunderstanding the question, the Portuguese replied that it came by way of Kampuchea, the Khmer name for Cambodia. What the Japanese heard was kabocha. And so this misnamed vegetable found its way into the language and cuisine of Japan.”

Japanese use kabocha in both savory and sweet dishes. Some of my favorite fall sweets included kabocha pudding, kabocha pie (a take on the American classic at Starbucks) and of course, Kit Kat’s seasonal pumpkin variety. For savory dishes, there’s the popular bento dish called kabocha nimino which is the kabocha simmered in soy, mirin and dashi broth. Many yakiniku restaurants (grill-at-your-table Korean BBQs) offer kabocha slices with their vegetable platters.

My husband and I were huge fans of kabocha and would buy some weekly in Japan. One of our favorite ways to prepare was to place the slices on the grill with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. After it was cooked, we’d drizzle with balsamic vinegar. For an indoor version, we would chunk the kabocha and roast it, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Kabocha has great versatility that lends well to other cuisines. I would use kabocha in spicy Thai curries or the recipe below where I created a culturally mixed dish for Thanksgiving dinner.

While it’s taking me awhile to transition stateside, I am happy to be picking up a kabocha squash tonight from our local CSA (community supported agriculture). I had to pay extra for it but for a little taste of Japan, it is well worth it!

Kabocha Puree with Ginger & Streusel Topping

Kabocha-Ginger Purée
with Streusel Topping
Kabocha puree from Bon Appetit 
This is the perfect mix of “east meets west” that I developed for Thanksgiving dinner while we were living in Japan. There were no American sweet potatoes and Japanese sweet potatoes were too fibrous and less sweet to sub into the traditional casserole. I saw this purée recipe and figured I’d give it a try. The streusel was a last minute addition to give it more of a traditional Thanksgiving feel.

1 1-1 1/4 lb kabocha squash, halved, seeded
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 3” piece of ginger, peeled
½ TBSP (packed) light brown sugar
¾ – 1 cup heavy cream

Streusel Topping:
¼ cup flour
¼ cup brown sugar, packed
¼ cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
¼ cup pecans

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Lightly oil the squash and season with salt and pepper. Place squash, cut side down, on prepared sheet. Roast kabocha for approximately 1 hour, or until fork is inserted easily. Let cool slightly.

Line a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth; set over a small bowl. Pulse ginger in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer to prepared strainer. Gather edges of cheesecloth together; squeeze tightly to release ginger juice into bowl.

To make the streusel, combine flour and brown sugar together until well mixed. Gently cut in butter until it resembles coarse sand. Mix in pecans.

Scoop squash flesh into a food processor. Add sugar and 1 Tbsp. ginger juice. With machine running, gradually add up to 1cup cream and purée until smooth, adding more cream by the spoonful if too thick. Season with salt, pepper, and more ginger juice, if desired. Place in greased casserole dish, or ramekins for individual servings. Top with streusel.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, or until warmed through and streusel topping is slightly browned.

Other Recipes:
Kabocha Pudding from Tokyo Kitchen Tales
Kabocha Nimono from La Fuji Mama
Individual Kabocha Casseroles from Tokyo Terrace
I made these when menu planning for Thanksgiving and it was delicious. It would work well for small gatherings, or small Japanese kitchens!
Kabocha Vanilla Chai Ice Cream on Food52
This recipe I created got me 2nd place in their best ice cream recipe. It’s one of my most requested!



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