Without the Northern blaze of fall leaves and snow, the idea of winter squash–with its thick, starchy skin–loses some relevance in the tropics. An example: Hawaii’s obvious lack of root cellars. But kabocha squash, a winter variety cultivated in Hawaii both in commercial operations and backyards, points to a culinary and cultural intelligence.
Squash originated in South America, with its global distribution exploding during the Exploration Age. The kabocha species, Curcurbita maxima, likely came to Hawaii with Japanese plantation workers.
“Kabocha” may refer to a number of winter squash varieties originally cultivated in Japan. Hawaii’s most familiar version has green skin and a squat appearance, but can even be found in oblong shapes.
Kabocha is a staple in Filipino cuisine under the name calabaza, where it stars in many dishes including an Ilocos stew, pinakbet. Also, kabocha is a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine, featured in tempura, soups and desserts. It pairs well with rich flavors such as butter (try making brown butter!), sage and black pepper. Its sweetness balances bitter flavors such as those found in kale, broccoli raab, mizuna and other leafy greens.
A few of its health benefits: Kabocha is packed with vitamins A and C, along with other minerals such as iron and potassium. Squash skin, in addition to tasting delicious when roasted, contains antioxidants and dietary fiber.
Kabocha squash is available at supermarkets such as Foodland, Safeway and Kokua Market, as well as local farmers’ markets such as at Kapiolani Community College and the Neal Blaisdell Center. Find them now, during the winter months when it is in season.Kokua Market, 2643 S. King St., open 8am-9pm, 941-1922