Tastes of Japan: Kabocha vs. Pumpkin

‘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!


13 thoughts on “Tastes of Japan: Kabocha vs. Pumpkin

  1. I have a stack of pumpkins on my table, right now.
    And I think butternut squash is like pumpkin. It’s spaghetti squash that’s all stringy and stuff. You can make soup out of butternut just like you can with pumpkin, but you wouldn’t get much of a soup from spaghetti squash.

  2. Oh, little kabocha, you try to be something you are not… valiant, but…. you are a savory. American pumpkins are your sweeter cousin. Stay on your kabobs, and tempura, kabocha! But yeah… stay out of my pumpkin pie!!!!

    • Happy Thanksgiving weekend to you too!

      But, if I didn’t move back at the realization that Starbucks in Japan don’t carry peppermint mochas at Christmas, I don’t know if anything will. 😉

  3. Both butternut and acorn squash cook to a semisolid. We usually bake them in the oven, cut side down in water, until soft. Then we scrape them out and mash them, add butter, salt, and sometimes honey. Delicious and nutritious!
    Send me your address and I’ll send you a package of pumpkin spice, or you can mix your own with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger.

    • Yeah, kaboda is similar; it has the consistency of a half boiled potato when cooked. Oh, That’s so kind of you! We’ll have to see if we can find the pumpkin seller again this year. Last year Alex made pumpkin butter!

  4. I think I’d go nearly mad if I couldn’t have two months of food flavored with all the fall spices–and yikes, no peppermint? Wow, you girls are truly tough nuts, aren’t you?
    In truth, I love as many squash varieties as I can get my hands on–kabocha included, but you listed a few inspiring recipe ideas, so now I’m extra excited for the farmer’s market tomorrow.
    Fingers crossed you all do find your pumpkin seller. Here’s hoping NJ.

    • Apparently one of the people in our writer’s group over here makes real pumpkin pie every year and he’s invited us to a pumpkin pie party. I’m so happy!

      I feel like I should put actual recipes at the end of these, but I’m not much of a cook myself. Alex suggested a link to a recipe somewhere else, so maybe I’ll try that.

    • How do you mess with ham?! It’s completely different than bologna. Bologna is like flat hot dog. I would be so disappointed.

      Over here, bacon isn’t smoked pig skin. It’s “a block of cured ham.” So much sadness.

      • Let’s just say it was like thin spam….
        But they have the pig! I never had such delectable chicharrones or pork chops. You can’t get a whole ham either. Maybe it’s the whole smoking thing. Who knows….and forget beef. But I must say I cannot get fresh fish here that begins to compare with what they had. I still have dreams about Wahoo. 😉

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