Apologies, American expats — the butternut squash and pumpkin pie you’re likely craving around Thanksgiving are difficult to find in Japan. However, Japanese cuisine has its own favorite gourd that, with a little work, can give you the same hearty fix: kabocha.
Kabocha is a sweet and mild winter squash that softens when cooked, so it’s used in almost everything from savory korokke (croquettes) to sweet donuts. The gourd derives from the seiyō kabocha (buttercup squash) and is sometimes called kuri kabocha (chestnut pumpkin). Despite its autumnal reputation, kabocha is harvested in the summer in some regions — after sitting for a few months, the plentiful starches inside the tough outer skin turn to sugars, making them much sweeter when they make it to the shelves.
Why the name “kabocha,” though? The first pumpkins were brought to Japan via Cambodia by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, followed by cultivation in Kyushu in the 17th century. The word Cambodia lent its name to “kabocha,” which these days is a catch-all term for pumpkins as a whole.
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