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Kabocha: Thanksgiving’s Sophisticated Squash

Braised Kabocha With Adzuki Bean Paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Braised Kabocha With Adzuki Bean Paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Nothing is more quintessentially fall than squash. Their varietal colors and shapes are much to be admired, and their brightly colored interiors make magnificent food. Though not as popular or well-known as pumpkin, butternut squash or spaghetti squash, my favorite squash is kabocha, the Japanese winter squash.

I planted kabocha seeds in my urban garden in Los Angeles this year. A single seed produced six dark green, striped kabochas, and the vines took over my yard. A kabocha can grow to 2 pounds to 8 pounds, and the weight and hardness are signs of a healthy kabocha. Mine, however, turned out minuscule, like tomatoes, because I could not bear to cut any off — they were too precious — and this limited their size. But even though my kabochas were small, they had a sweet flavor like a chestnut.

Kabocha’s history starts continents away

Most people think kabocha is a Japanese squash variety, and that’s at least partially true. It was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Different theories have arisen as to how the name kabocha came about. Some say it is derived from the Portuguese word for squash, abobora, as have many other foods the missionaries introduced such as tempero, which the Japanese refer to in the slightly altered form as tempura. Others say kabocha came from the word Cambodia, another place Portuguese missionaries traveled to. But if you trace kabocha’s roots further, you will eventually end up somewhere in the Andes region in South America.

I can see how this prolific squash transplanted itself from continent to continent, its seeds traveling around the world in missionaries’ pockets or carried by migrating birds, dropping to the ground and sprouting in back yards of Japanese temple gardens and fields. Today, it has become a beloved and familiar landrace variety we call kabocha, which, by the way, is also a generic Japanese word that refers to all pumpkins and squash.

My mother associated kabocha with food shortages during World War II. In the Japanese countryside where she fled with her family, they basically subsisted on kabocha. You would think my mother would have grown tired of it, but she loved it. She would put it in our miso soup and our bento boxes to brighten up our meals, and she would fry it up into tempura. Kabocha was always present during American holidays, which we celebrated just as much as we did Japanese holidays after our family transplanted to America.

The nutritional benefits of kabocha are many. It is full of beta-carotene and fiber, and it’s a low-carb alternative to butternut squash, with less than half the carbs  (7 grams vs. 16 grams) per 1 cup serving. For all those people looking for a guiltless holiday food that is low in carbs, kabocha is the answer.

How to cut kabocha for cooking

Still,if you hesitate to pick up kabocha at the market because of its hard rind, you should know there is a way to handle it without chopping off a finger. First you have to slice off the stem, which is a very simple thing to do with the help of the knife: Just cut around the stem and pull it. Then turn the kabocha upside down and cut out the navel. With a long mixing spoon or pair of long chopsticks, make the two holes bigger. Next, take a heavy, sharp knife and cut into the hole, holding one end of the kabocha with your hand to stabilize it. Cut the squash in half, working on one side at a time. You will end up with two halves, and the rest is easy. Just scoop out the seeds and start cutting the halves into quarters, then into eighths and on into smaller, bite-size pieces.

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Kabochas. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

When cutting kabocha, I like to leave most of the skin on and bevel the corners so they don’t get mushy while cooking. One more tip for preparing kabocha is not to overcook it, because it will make it mushy. It cooks rather fast, about 8 to 10 minutes in boiling water, which makes it an easy, colorful and nutritious addition to everyday meals.

For special occasions like Thanksgiving, kabocha can be in the spotlight. Put kabocha next to the turkey, where it will be appreciated by all, or serve it warm as a dessert with a dab of melted butter and warm azuki bean paste.

Braised Kabocha

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds (600 grams) kabocha

1 tablespoon soy sauce

6 tablespoons cane sugar

Pinch of salt

Directions

1. Cut kabocha into bite-size pieces, leaving some skin on.

2. Place the kabocha and enough water to cover it in a medium-sized saucepan. Add the soy sauce, cane sugar and salt.

3. Cover with lid and bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook for another 8 to 10 minutes until the kabocha is cooked through, but not mushy. Test with a toothpick. Drain the seasoned water.

4. Serve warm or at room temperature with the skin side up. It can also be served with adzuki bean paste (see recipe below).

Adzuki Bean Paste

Prep time: Overnight soaking

Cook time: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours, plus soaking time

Yield: Makes about 3 ½ cups

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups (250 grams) adzuki beans

1 1/3 cups (250 grams) cane sugar

Pinch of salt

Directions

1. Rinse the adzuki beans, then place them in a large pot and cover with water to soak overnight. Once hydrated, the beans will expand in size, so make sure the beans are submerged in plenty of water.

2. Bring the pot of beans to a boil, then remove from heat and discard the broth.

3. Fill the pot again with water and cook over low heat until the beans are cooked. You should be able to smash them between your fingers with no hard core in the middle.

4. Continue cooking the beans over medium-low heat, and add the sugar in three parts. Stir the beans to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.

5. Add a pinch of salt and cook until two thirds of the liquid is absorbed in the beans. If you want a soft bean paste, the beans should leave a tail when you scoop up the paste and drop it back into the pot. If the bean falls in one lump, it will become a harder bean paste.

6. Once the bean paste is cooked to a desired texture, transfer it to a cookie sheet to let cool. Wrap the paste in plastic and store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for 10 days in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer.

7. Serve warm with Braised Kabocha.

Main photo: Braised Kabocha With Adzuki Bean Paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai



Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer, as well as a mobile Japanese cooking teacher and soba maker, who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains. She is currently writing "Rice Craft, Adventures in Onigiri, Japanese Artful Fingerfood" (Chronicle Books -- to be published in fall of 2016).


6 COMMENTS
  • KathleenC 11·11·14

    Can Kambocha be oven roasted as well? My husband makes an excellent butternut squash, tossed with olive oil and spices and roasted in the oven. If he could substitute a lower carb squash that would be ideal.

  • Sylvia Lewis 11·12·14

    My favorite squash! With your Adzuki bean sounds lovely. It’s sometimes called Dominican squash (Auyama) as it is sold on every corner in the Heights, the Latino upper west side NYC neighborhood. Makes a delicious soup after roasting or added to chicken or pork stews.

  • Julia della Croce 11·14·14

    I’m so glad you wrote this story. There’s so much you can do with squash and pumpkin besides pie, and I love the Asian ways. I’m going to make myself some of this for dinner!

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