Sat, Apr 30, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Pumpkin with a chestnut twist

Long popular in Japanese cuisine, kabocha has many fine qualities and provides a rich creamy sweetness to a wide variety of dishes

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Chicken with kabocha and chickpeas is a great one-pot meal.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Kabocha is really nothing more than a slightly exotic pumpkin, and seems to owe its cache to a Japanese pedigree. It is recognizably a relation of the pumpkin, and is notable for its dark, knobby, green skin. It has a deep flavor and dependable sweetness, and given that it has adapted well to Taiwan’s climate, is currently basking in a glow of popularity.

Kabocha (a species of Cucurbita maxima) is an Asian variety of winter squash and has been introduced to the wider world largely through Japanese cuisine where it is widely used in soups and tempura. Such is its association with Japan, it is often called Japanese pumpkin. The Portuguese introduced the ancestor of the modern kabocha to Japan and its name is derived from the Portuguese word for pumpkin: abobora.

The flesh of the kabocha is orange or yellow, and has a texture that is somewhere between that of pumpkin and sweet potato. Flavor-wise, it has an extraordinary sweetness that often exceeds even that of butternut squash. Its rich flavor has earned it the nickname of “chestnut pumpkin” (栗子南瓜) in Taiwan.

But this is not always advantageous. In one popular preparation, in which it is simply cooked together with rice (instead of the more common sweet potato), it pushes what should be a savory dish too far the wrong way toward sweetness. Roasting intensifies the flavor still further, which can make for a very luscious tasting puree (as its use as a side with mahi-mahi and fiddlehead fern in Taipei Times, April 16, p12), and roasting slices or chunks is also popular, with glazes ranging from miso to a mix of muscovado sugar and cumin.

I had resisted making much use of kabocha, having a preference for the softer and more delicate butternut squash, and finding that many preparations for kabocha tended toward the cloyingly sweet. However, with many of our neighbors in Hualien having had success growing kabocha, despite the generally poor growing season this year, it seemed churlish not to give it another chance.

In fact, kabocha can be used in any dish that requires a nice, firm fleshed squash or pumpkin, and this makes it particularly appropriate for slow cooked dishes, such as the recipe below, as it keeps its shape well even after long simmering. The skin of the kabocha is edible, though recipes that keep the skin require a longer cooking time. That said, the highest concentration of nutrition in most vegetables is just under the skin, often peeled off and thrown away in our desire to avoid pesticide residue or simply in a misguided conception of food cleanliness. If you have gone to the trouble and expense of buying organic, use the whole vegetable skin and all!

If it’s the sort of thing you care about, kabocha has fewer calories and less carbs than an equivalent weight of butternut squash. It has an abundance of beta-carotene, which can be converted to vitamin A in the body, which is good for the skin, blood and eyes. It is also rich in iron, vitamin C and many types of B vitamins as well. Loads of fiber. Health-wise, you really can’t get much better, and it is perfect comfort food, popular in vegan and paleo diets.

Chicken with Kabocha and Chickpeas

Recipe

(serves 4-6)

A one-pot wonder that gives you pretty much everything you need in a meal with minimal preparation. Any firm fleshed pumpkin will serve, but kabocha has a unique taste that seems to go particularly well with North African spices.

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