Don't let butternut have all the fun! Try bright, beta-carotene-rich kabocha squash tonight.
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kabocha squash or japanese pumpkin
Credit: Getty / Torsakarin

If your usual squash of choice is butternut, consider this a PSA for its Japanese cousin, the kabocha. You can identify a kabocha squash by its shape, which is rounded and a little bit squat. Sometimes ridged, the kabocha's skin, which is rough in texture, is usually deep green and either streaked or mottled lightly with white and light green. (Be sure to also keep an eye out for a jolt of color in the form of the vivid scarlet or orange varieties.) Although the squash's skin seems hard, it is quite thin and delicious when roasted. The Japanese sometimes cut its peel into decorative patterns or peel it in strips before dicing the squash, allowing its orange flesh to contrast prettily with the brightness of the green skin.

Simply called pumpkin in Japan, where it is beloved and frequently used, kabocha squash is actually the generic name for a broad category which includes several specific varieties of pumpkin and squash, all of which are known as kabocha here in the U.S. These varieties were introduced relatively recently to the American market—probably in the 1970s—by a California seed company, who began growing a variety called Home Delite, according to Elizabeth Schneider in her encyclopedic book Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables, a Commonsense Guide.

What Does Kabocha Squash Taste Like?

Rich in color, nutrients (including beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A), and flavor, the kabocha is neither as intensely sweet as butternut or honeynut squash, nor as delicate in flavor as acorn or spaghetti squash. It's balanced and just sweet enough, with a hint of the earthiness of chestnut. The texture is also reminiscent of chestnut, as well as sweet potato. Among winter squash, it stands out for having none of the wateriness that some other squashes have, but it's just as smooth as its counterparts. In fact, the kabocha is slightly floury, and has a fluffy baked-potato consistency when roasted or steamed; by contrast, its silkiness is revealed when it is simmered or stewed.

How to Choose and Store Kabocha (and Other Winter Squash)

Choose squash that feels heavy (which will be fresher and more moist than a light one) and has firm skin that's free of soft spots or punctures. Be sure the stem is still attached. Like other squash, kabocha should be stored in a cool place, preferably away from sunlight, for up to one month. Once you've cut into the squash, remove the seeds and fibers and store it, tightly wrapped, in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for about one week.

How to Prep Kabocha (and Other Winter Squash)

Like many winter squash the kabocha has a tough, protective skin (that becomes tender and edible when cooked). This brings us to the subject of cutting winter squash open: It's important to approach this job with confidence. If your knife is dull or your cuts aren't assertive enough, you risk hurting yourself. Begin by making sure your knife is sharp, and then position your squash in such a way that it won't roll or slip away from you. If possible, slice off the bottom to create a flat surface. Firmly plant the tip of the knife into the top of the squash, and while it's wedged there, use something strong to hammer the spine of the blade near the handle, until it sinks into the squash deeply enough to split it open. Do not try to pull the knife out while the squash has a grip on it; you might very well lose the battle.

Once you've cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds with a spoon (saving them to roast for a healthy snack) and place the cut side of the squash down on a cutting board. If you want to peel it, slice the peel off with your knife now. From this point, cut it into wedges, and then into thin slices or cubes.

If you don't have a strong, sharp knife or you're not strong enough to attack a large winter squash or pumpkin, you can always resort to roasting the squash whole at 350ºF. It will take about an hour for a medium squash to become completely tender. At that point, you can easily split it in half, scoop out the seeds and then use the flesh in purées and other recipes.

How to Use Kabocha Squash

To enjoy a kabocha squash, not much is needed aside from olive oil or butter and salt, but it pairs well with nutty flavors such as sesame and hazelnut, Middle Eastern spices, chiles, and many different herbs. (Try this salad with roasted kabocha, tahini, and herbs). In Japan, kabocha is often fried in tempura batter or simmered in dashi broth and seasoned with deep, umami-rich flavors such as miso, shio koji, and tamari. Our brown rice bowl pairs kabocha with shiitake mushrooms and cooks them in lapsang souchong tea as a delicious alternative to dashi.

When substituting kabocha for other squash in puréed or mashed recipes, consider adding a bit more liquid to compensate for the lower moisture content of the kabocha. Use your judgement to add enough cream or milk, one or two tablespoons at a time, to achieve the consistency you want. And don't miss out on this Spiced Kabocha Squash Butter. It's like pumpkin butter, only better!


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