Monday, October 12, 2009

Kabocha Pumpkin

It's October, the only month when most Americans think much about pumpkin beyond the ubiquitous Libby's can. But in Japan, pumpkins are available all year, imported from New Zealand or Mexico during the off season here, and they're as common as carrots in the produce section and on the table. The predominant pumpkin here is the kabocha, a sweet, firm-fleshed winter squash that's yellow to orange inside and striped in dark and light green outside, with an occasional orange spot or wart. The skin is edible, so there's no need to peel it unless there are bruises or woody bits that need to be cut away.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of pumpkin, and the jack o'lantern is probably the least tasty among them. I can remember nibbling on the triangle I had just cut out to make an eye in a pumpkin I was helping to carve back in fourth grade and spitting it out immediately - it had a horrifying vegetal flavor that made me think of compost. The acorn squash, which is pretty common in the U.S., has a similar watery smell, texture, and flavor, and I hated it the first time I had it, too. However, I've always like pumpkin pie, which is made out of an entirely different variety of winter squash.
After first encountering chunks of kabocha in a school lunch "curry stew" early in my Kyoto teaching career, I soon became a pumpkin junkie. At one point I was eating half a pumpkin a day for months on end and my skin actually started turning orange. Back then, I simmered the pumpkin in soy sauce, mirin, and sake together with sliced shiitake mushrooms, the dried kind that came in a huge bag from a Chinese grocery, and mixed everything together with yogurt and rice. After returning to the U.S. I went into pumpkin withdrawal, since the winter squash that bear any resemblance to Japanese kabocha (buttercup, red kuri, blue hubbard, and the American version of kabocha) are only sold in October and are usually too watery to taste good with yogurt. Instead, when they were in season I roasted them and sprinkled them with grated parmesan cheese, and cut them up in chunks to freeze for use in Moroccan stews or ravioli fillings the rest of the year.

Since coming back to live in Tokyo last year, I've reverted to subsisting largely on kabocha, though not quite at the extreme level of my orange Kyoto days. Now, I cook only about 1/8 of the pumpkin at a time, combining it with a mixture of fresh mushrooms (usually the shiitake and enoki shown here), and simmering it for about 15 minutes in a little soy sauce and water. I eat it with tofu instead of cheese or yogurt now. Often I have something green on the side - spinach or cucumber make a refreshing contrast, and avocado is divine. But all I really need to be happy is kabocha, and here in Japan I can have it every day of the year if I so choose. And I usually do.

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