Kabocha, pronounced kah-BOH-chah, is a winter squash encased in a dull, deep green, hard, mottled skin that is oftentimes lined with pale, uneven stripes. There are also some orange skinned cultivars though the green is the most commonly produced. The skin is technically edible if cooked though most commonly it is discarded. Round and squat with a flattened top, it ranges from one to eight pounds but generally weighs an average of two to three pounds. Within the squash is a deep yellow orange flesh which surrounds a small seed cavity. When cooked the Kabocha squash offers a finely grained, dry flesh with a buttery and tender texture. Rather sweet, its rich flavor combines that of a sweet potato and a pumpkin.
Kabocha squash is available year-round with a peak season in the fall and winter months.
Kabocha squash is botanically classified as part of Cucurbita maxima or Cucurbita moschata. In Australia and New Zealand Kabocha is also known as Japanese pumpkin. In Japan the term “Kabocha” refers to a generic grouping of many strains of Japanese winter squashes and pumpkins. Outside of Japan however it refers to one specific squash. Multiple varieties of Kabocha exist and were developed to be a sweet and superior flavored cooking pumpkin. Kuri kabocha is the type most frequently found sold at markets today and is a variety that was created in Japan based on seiyo kabocha.
Kabocha squash provides vitamin A, C, some of the B vitamins, calcium, iron and fiber. The seeds of the Kabocha squash contain a significant amount of zinc.
The hard shell of Kabocha squash can be a challenge for some to cut with a knife when uncooked. For ease in cutting the Kabocha can first be microwaved for a few minutes to soften. Kabocha can be roasted, steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried, baked, and braised. It can be cooked with or without the skin still on. Kabocha holds its shape well when cooked and can be added in cubes to gratins, risottos, soups, stews, curries, and pasta. It can also be roasted on its own or combined with other root vegetables first. When cooked and pureed it can be used to make breads, croquets, cakes, sauces and soups. Kabocha can also be battered and fried tempura style as is popular in Japan. In Thailand Kabocha squash is popularly used in desserts and curries. Kabocha squash pairs well with pears, apples, lemon, kale, spinach, eggplant, garlic, sage, parsley, shallots, cilantro, nutmeg, clove, curry spice, honey, brown sugar, coconut milk, butter, cream, Italian sausage, and parmesan cheese. Kabocha squash will keep for several weeks in cool, dry storage.
In Japan Kabocha squash was traditionally eaten around the time of the winter solstice with shiruko (adzuki beans) in a sweet soup as it was believed to help boost the immune system and help prevent colds during the winter months. In Japan the Kabocha we know around the world is also known as kuri kabocha or “nutty pumpkin” a nod to the pumpkins flavor, a taste that is also there referred to as “haku haku”. In the 1980’s the Kabocha squash was introduced to Tonga in efforts to create a cash crop for the country. Since that time it has become Tonga’s primary export with the bulk of supply going to Korea and Japan.
Squash is believed to have originated in Mesoamerica and was first brought to Japan by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese had been in Cambodia prior to arrival in Japan and brought with them a squash they called “Cambodia abóbora” which the Japanese renamed to be Kabocha. Japan is a major importer of Kabocha squash during their off season and imports squashes from New Zealand, Mexico, and the United States. Kabocha squash is a warm season crop that can be grown in a variety of well-drained soil types. They are drought tolerant and less tolerant of low temperatures and frost so should be harvested prior to the first frost. To fully develop its optimum flavor and texture after harvest Kabocha squash is ripened for thirteen days in a warm space then it is allowed to cure in cold storage for a month.