‘Tis the season of the pumpkin. With Hallowe’en and two Thanksgivings coming around the bend in this household, we are heartily looking forward to a nice, big, orange pumpkin or two in the coming weeks. On that note, I want to draw attention to one, very important fact:
Kabocha is a Japanese winter squash that is commonly translated as ‘pumpkin’ in Japan. While it is true that kabocha and pumpkin are both of the Cucurbita genus, when it comes to cooking and taste, they are about as similar as an apple and a pear. Kabocha is smaller than a western pumpkin with dry, dense flesh that when cooked produces a dry, dense starchy block, not unlike a baked potato. Pumpkin on the other hand is moist and spongy on the inside, and becomes a buttery liquid when cooked. Kabocha is more similar to its cousin butternut squash than it is to the orange, smiling jack-o-lantern pumpkins that we from the west are most familiar with. Pumpkins can be bought in Japan if you know where to look, but because of their size and prevalence in Japanese cooking, kabocha are far more common.
Unfortunately, because kabocha is translated as ‘pumpkin’ over here, all the traditional pumpkin foods that are staple tastes and smells in October and November are made with kabocha. Oh, and there’s no pumpkin spice over here either. Nowhere else is this discrepancy more stark than with pumpkin pie.
A few years ago, Alex and I attended a Thanksgiving party at the home of the mayor of Osaka. One of the biggest draws to the event was the billing of a traditional turkey dinner with real pumpkin pie. At the end of the dinner when the pie was served, the eyes of the American guests lit up with anticipation and excitement which lasted until the first bite. The pie wasn’t sweet at all. The kabocha sat like a lifeless rock on a bed of flaky filo pastry. One by one, heartbreak come over the dinner guests. To their credit, many politely fought through each bite, all the way to the end, but several plates of kabocha pie were abandoned discreetly on the table, their owners shedding a secret tear of disappointment.
This isn’t to say that kabocha is a horrible, tasteless vegetable that ought not to be eaten. Kabocha is very tasty when it is prepared correctly. Stewed with other vegetables, it makes a wonderful stir fry which is moist and flavorful in its own way. It brings a great flavor and texture to curry and rice, and when grilled in thin strips with corn and onion, it goes wonderfully with a good grilled steak. Just please, keep it out of my pumpkin pie!