Think sweet potato/pumpkin for texture. Now imagine nutty, earthy sweetness for taste. That's kabocha—kah-bow-cha—squash.
A squat specimen, kabocha is similar to a buttercup squash but with a base that points outward. Light green stripes run unevenly around its dull, deep green, hard, mottled skin, and its fluffy flesh is yellow/orange. Kabocha can grow as big as eight pounds or more, but it's usually just a few pounds, making it ideal for single or small servings.
Portuguese sailors brought the sweet Asian winter squash from Cambodia to Japan in 1541. The sailors called it Cambodia abobora, and the Japanese named it kabocha. Today, kabocha squash is grown mostly in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, California, Florida, Hawaii, Colorado, Mexico and Tasmania. After harvest, it's ripened for a couple of weeks in a warm space then cured in cold storage for a month to fully develop its flavor and texture.
Kabocha squash is high in beta-carotene, iron, vitamin C, fiber and potassium. It also provides small amounts of calcium, folic acid and trace B vitamins.
In Japan, this squash is known as kuri kabocha or nutty pumpkin. While most kabocha are green-skinned, there are also some orange-skinned varieties.
Varieties you may run across at the farmer's market or in your co-op's produce section include Winter Sweet (a great storer), Sunshine (an orange-skinned variety), Black Forest (a small kabocha), Cutie (a small, dark orange variety with lighter orange stripes) and Shokichi (a mini variety).
Like other winter squash, kabocha can be roasted, steamed, baked or pan-fried. The rind is edible but usually peeled away. That rind can be hard to cut through, too. Softening it a bit in a microwave is said to make the task a little easier.
Popular in Japanese and Korean fare, you'll find kabocha used for making fried tempura, soups and stews, and even in desserts. The smooth, sweet flesh is wonderful plain, with a simple sprinkling of black pepper and a dab of butter, but it also partners well with stronger flavors, like the red curry and lime in this Red Curry Shrimp and Kabocha Squash.
Add chunks of cooked kabocha to salads, with a maple or orange dressing. Combine it with grains, as in this winter squash risotto, with white wine and Parmesan cheese. Layer it in lasagna and gratins, and use it to stuff ravioli. Try cooked, pureed kabocha in breads, cakes and muffins, too.
If you enjoy pumpkin or other squash soup, be sure to give Creamy Caramelized Onion and Squash Soup with Croutons, Three Sisters Soup and Kabocha Squash Soup a try. Also consider adding it to any vegetable stew.
Kabocha are available year round, but at they're at their peak in late summer to early fall. Choose squash that are heavy for their size, with a firm, dull rind and no soft spots. Light-colored bumps on the rind are perfectly fine.
Store kabocha in a cool, dry place—not the refrigerator—for one to three months. Some varieties, like Winter Sweet, will keep even longer, up to six months.
After cooking or cutting, refrigerate and use within several days.