The humble kabocha has quietly inhabited the pots and pans of Hawaii home cooks for generations. Packed with sweetness, this vibrantly orange Japanese squash has made relatively quick and simple work of providing healthful, hearty meals in a variety of ways.
Those with Japanese roots have traditionally enjoyed kabocha simmered in some variation of soy sauce, mirin, dashi and sugar, or cooked with pork and aburage (fried bean curd, the wrapper used in cone sushi) and seasoned with soy sauce and sugar.
Filipino cooks whip up stir fries and stews that include calabasa, the Tagalog name for kabocha. Sari sari includes shrimp or pork and a host of vegetable combos, seasoned with garlic, onion and fish sauce. Another preparation combines pork and shrimp with calabasa and sequa squashes, flavored with fish or oyster sauce.
And now that kabocha is catching on beyond these shores, recipes abound offering different preparations and flavor combos. Foodies have gone creative with kabocha gnocchi and pies, and all manner of soups and salads.
An easy, popular preparation is roasting the squash. Kabocha’s natural sweetness makes it a no-brainer for spices traditionally paired with pumpkin, such as cinnamon. Toss slices or chunks in oil and sprinkle with spice. Or steam chunks for creamier flesh that can be eaten as is or topped with a tiny pat of butter. Keep the skin on for either preparation, but be sure to scrub it well first. Scrape out seeds and discard, or save them for roasting later.
Steam kabocha for easy mashing, then mix with butter, salt and pepper, and you’ve got a healthier alternative to mashed potatoes, since kabocha is rich in vitamin A. And at only 60 calories per cup (this, of course, excludes the butter), it is diet-friendly as well.
Mashed kabocha also substitutes well in recipes that call for canned pumpkin. My recent attempt at pumpkin bread using the mashed squash turned out moist, with a subtle sweetness — success.
The one challenge of preparing kabocha is in cutting through its tough, dark green rind. It can be treacherous to negotiate a sharp knife and keep stable the unwieldy, slippery orb. Some take a cleaver to it; others soften the squash in the microwave before cutting into it.
While Kabocha in Hawaii has been commonly used in home cooking, there are gourmet preparations for the squash in traditional Japanese cuisine.
Hiroshi Fukui, executive chef of Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, spent many years preparing traditional kaiseki — multicourse, seasonal menus — before opening his current restaurant. Now he offers contemporary kaiseki four times a year.
Preparing kabocha for kaiseki isn’t easy, Fukui says.
"It’s all about color and texture, so you’ve got to peel the skin but leave a thin layer of green on top," he says. "That’s hard because the skin is hard. It’s a lot of prep work."
It takes finesse to cook the kabocha without washing out the thin layer of green color: First, there’s a low boil until the squash softens, then an ice water bath to halt the cooking process. Before serving, the kabocha is seasoned with white shoyu, sugar and a dash of mirin, then cooked in a temperature that’s brought up quickly to ensure the green remains.
Nowadays, Fukui features the occasional contemporary preparation of kabocha, including mashed kabocha and kabocha creme brulee.
But back to home cooking.
Dr. Amelia Jacang, avid cook, gardener and founding member of the Filipino Women’s League, says Filipino cooking utilizes not just the kabocha fruit, but its flowers and shoots as well. One of her favorite preparations is dinengdeng, one version of which combines broiled or fried fish with mushrooms, marungai leaves and various parts of the kabocha plant.
"It’s delicious," she says.
Jacang, who grows kabocha in her home garden, says it’s important to cook with squash that’s the appropriate ripeness.
Fruit too young aren’t flavorful, while old fruit are overly sweet and have dry flesh. Identify a young fruit by the completely green skin and soft flesh. Old fruit have lots of yellow skin and a dried-up stem.
Medium-ripened kabocha have patches of yellow skin and stems that still bear some green hues. Seeds should be fully formed.
If you grow your own kabocha, Jacang says it’s easy to tell which flowers are fruit-bearing.
"You can see a tiny little fruit in there from early on," she says.
But if your thumb isn’t green, it’s still easy to be sustainable and enjoy kabocha. Various Oahu farms, primarily in Kunia, grow the squash that sell in supermarkets. Aloun Farms is the largest producer.
A recent price check had kabocha for $1.99 per pound at Times Supermarket, $1.79 at Foodland and $1.29 at Don Quijote. On sale, prices can drop below 70 cents. This version of sari sari lists a host of vegetables, but it’s not necessary to use them all. Select four favorites or use four of whatever you have on hand.
Courtesy Amelia Jacang
1/4 pound shrimp
1 tablespoon oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small onion, sliced
1 large tomato, sliced
1/2 pound crispy-skinned roast pork, sliced
1 tablespoon patis
1 tablespoon achuete powder (annatto)
4 cups water
» Select 4 of the following:
1 cup kabocha, cubed
1 cup long beans, sliced
1 cup winged beans, sliced
1 cup white squash, sliced
1 cup okra, sliced
1 cup eggplant, sliced
1 cup sequa squash, sliced
1/2 pound ong choi (swamp cabbage), cut into 2-inch lengths
Salt, to taste
Clean shrimp, leaving shells on.
In large pot, heat oil. Saute garlic, onion and tomato. Add roast pork, patis and shrimp; stir-fry 2 minutes.
Mix achuete powder with the water. Add to pork mixture; cover and bring to boil. Add vegetables to pot in order listed. Cook each until almost tender. Add salt, to taste. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
Vegetable and Legume Soup
1 cup lentils or split peas, or 1/2 cup of each
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
3 to 6 cloves garlic, crushed or pressed
1 can chicken or vegetable broth (optional)
1-1/2 cups kabocha, skinned and cubed into 1/4-inch pieces, divided
1/4 cup dried vegetable broth (optional)
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (optional)
1 medium carrot, diced
1 head broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium zucchini, cubed
1 bunch kale
Rinse lentils and/or split peas. Drain and set aside.
In large pot, heat oil and brown onion and garlic. Add legumes and stir, then add water and broth if using, to cover legumes with 3 to 4 inches of liquid (about 9 cups). Bring to boil, then lower heat to medium-low and simmer. Add 1/2 cup kabocha and dried vegetable broth if using. Add salt. Cook about 40 minutes, until legumes are soft. Add more liquid as necessary.
Pour soup into blender and blend to desired consistency, then return to pot (or use a hand blender and blend right in pot). Add diced tomatoes if using and bring back to simmer. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Add carrots and rest of kabocha and simmer 5 minutes. Add broccoli stems, simmer 3 minutes, then add broccoli florets and zucchini. After 3 more minutes, add kale and cook another 2 or 3 minutes, until kale is lightly cooked.
Adjust liquid and seasoning if necessary. Serves 6.
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Kale and Roasted Kabocha
Adapted from "Clean Food," by Terry Walters
1/2 medium kabocha, skin scrubbed clean
2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 red onion, sliced into strips
3 cloves garlic, minced, or to taste
1 bunch kale, cut into bite-size pieces
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Scoop out seeds from kabocha half and slice, skin on, into bite-size pieces about 1/4-inch thick.
In bowl, mix kabocha with vinegar, 3 tablespoons olive oil and salt. Place on cookie sheet and roast about 30 minutes. Flip kabocha a couple of times.
In small pan on low heat, saute onions in 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Cook until onions are crisp. Remove from pan and set aside.
When roasted, remove kabocha from oven and set aside.
In large pan on medium, heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil and saute garlic, then add kale. Stir fry for about 5 to 7 minutes, until kale is lightly cooked.
Mix kabocha and kale, then serve topped with onions. Serves 4.