With cooler weather around the corner, our thoughts turn away from cold noodles and salads to autumn comfort foods like nimono, simmered dishes in a broth, usually a classic seaweed and dried fish-based dashi.
One of the most comforting nimono is simmered kabocha squash, a winter squash that is high in sugar, low in moisture and always delicious in savory or sweet recipes. Although simmered kabocha seems so quintessentially Japanese, like so many other foods, its history in this country doesn’t go as far back as you might think.
Squash and other members of the gourd family (cucurbitaceae) originated in the Americas and were brought to Europe and other lands by 16th-century explorers.
The most popular among several theories as to how it arrived in Japan is that specimens of a small, squat squash with dark, knobby skin were presented to the lord of Toyo-no-kuni, current day Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, by Portuguese traders in the mid 16th century.
They were called kabocha because the Portuguese came to Japan from Cambodia, which was mistakenly thought to be the food’s place of origin. (The kanji characters applied to the word mean “southern melon.”)
By the Edo Period (1603-1868), kabocha squash were so firmly rooted and well loved that they were included on a list of the top five most-popular things amongst Edokko, the citizens of Edo (present-day Tokyo). The rakugo (comedic stories) of the time also mentioned “stage plays, konnyaku (devil’s tongue), sweet potatoes and octopus” as being popular among Edoites.
These days, kabocha squash, known elsewhere as “Japanese squash,” are gaining in popularity for the dense sweetness of their flavor.
However, the kabocha squash varieties we know today are not the same as the ones brought over by the Portuguese that were so loved in the Edo Period, which have firm, waxy and not-so-sweet flesh and very hard skins. This variety (cucurbita moschata) is known as Nihon kabocha, or Japanese kabocha, in Japan.
Most modern kabocha squash varieties are descended from ones brought in during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) from the United States, which feature smooth, not-so-tough skins and floury, sweet flesh. These varieties are confusingly classified as seiyo or Western kabocha in Japan.
Adding to the confusion, the word kabocha itself is used in the way “squash” or “pumpkin” are used in English — so saying “kabocha squash” is actually like saying “squash squash.” A zucchini is sometimes called a zucchini kabocha, for example.
The peak season for this “Western” type of kabocha squash is actually in the summer, but they are available year-round, and in many people’s minds kabocha recipes are associated with cool weather.
A good kabocha squash is very heavy and has thick, shiny skin. If you buy a cut piece, the flesh should be a deep, dark orange, the pith should look fresh and the seeds nice and plump.
Whole, uncut kabocha squash can be kept in a cool, dark, dry place if you have one, but cut pieces should be refrigerated, covered and used as soon as possible. Besides simmering, my other favorite way to eat kabocha squash is as tempura.
This month’s recipe (see sidebar) is one that my mother has been making ever since I can remember. The chicken adds extra umami and texture, but it is delicious without it, too. If you are making the dashi stock from scratch, I recommend using lots of katsuobushi (bonito flakes).
Simmered kabocha squash with chicken
Serves 4 as part of a Japanese meal
400g kabocha squash (about ½ medium)
100g ground chicken
400ml dashi fish soup stock, or 400ml water and 1 teaspoon dashi stock granules, plus additional water if needed
½ teaspoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons sake
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
4-5 green beans for garnish
Remove the seeds and pith from the kabocha. Cut it into 2- to 3-centimeter cubes. (Tip: It’s easier to cut it from the inside toward the skin.) Cut the tops and tails off the green beans and cut them into pieces.
Put the cubed kabocha in a pan, skin side down. Pour the dashi stock plus additional water if needed so that the kabocha is just covered. Set the heat to high, and bring to a boil. When it comes to a boil, add the chicken, grated ginger, sake, mirin, sugar and half the soy sauce. Bring back to a boil and turn the heat down to medium. Simmer for eight to 10 minutes, until a skewer goes through the kabocha easily.
Boil the green beans in salted water for two or three minutes while the kabocha is cooking. Drain, and run cold water over them. Drain again.
When the kabocha is done, add the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce. Taste, and add a little more if you think it’s needed. Serve hot or cold, with the cooking liquid poured over and garnished with the green beans. (Makiko Itoh)