Add this healthy gourd to your fall recipes

As summer gives way to fall and colours begin to appear on the trees, it’s time to start thinking about all of the seasonal colours we can add to our plates. And just as we start anticipating the delicious squashes that are in season this time of year, people in Japan also start thinking about their most notable gourd: kabocha.

Despite how common kabocha is in Japanese cuisine, the gourd is not native to Japan. Like other squashes, kabocha was domesticated in central America as many as 10,000 years ago. It didn’t make its way to Japan until around 1541 when the Portuguese brought it with them from Cambodia. This gourd was then known to the Japanese as Cambodia abobora, which was later shortened to the name kabocha. Though the current name for this popular pumpkin originated with the 16th-century versions brought in by the Portuguese, the current variety most likely descends from the ones brought to Japan in the Meiji era, more than 300 years later. While generally referred to simply as kabocha, this most common variety is specifically known askuri kabocha, as some people use the general term “kabocha” to refer to other kinds of squash.

The modern kabocha features a bumpy green outer skin that gives way to a vibrant yellow-orange flesh with a subtly sweet flavour akin to a sweet potato. This gourd also packs a nutritional punch. The green skin of the kabocha is edible when cooked and is full of fibre, while the flesh is rich with beta-carotene. It is also rich in vitamin C, some B vitamins, calcium and iron. Roast the seeds the same way you would roast regular pumpkin seeds for a hit of zinc.

Because of the nutritional benefits of kabocha, it was traditionally eaten around the winter solstice with adzuki beans to boost the immune system and ward off illness during the colder months. Kabocha is also believed to assist with weight loss and is popular among women who want to lose weight after giving birth. Japanese food makers have even dabbled in kabocha-flavoured snacks and sweets, creating their own version of the ubiquitous North American pumpkin spice flavour that appears in everything from cookies to coffee each year.

At the grocery store, make sure you look for a kabocha with rich, deep green skin that feels heavier than you might expect. Most grocery stores sell it whole, but some Asian grocery stores sell smaller portions of pre-cut halves or quarters. Try tossing it with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting it, or cook it with some dashi (broth), soy, sugar and a bit of salt. You can even swap out sweet potato or other squashes from your favourite recipes and add in kabocha for something different. Even though kabocha is available year-round, its peak season is during the fall and winter months, making it perfect for blended soups, or simmered in dashi for an authentic Japanese flavour.