Pan-fried Kabocha (Japanese Pumpkin)
I only have one day left in Japan. So I thought it was about time I posted this little ode to the Japanese pumpkin.
Japanese kabocha squash is green on the outside, but orange through the center. Kabocha are rounder and squatter than their outsized orange jack-o-lantern counterparts, but these are no carving pumpkins. Nor are they pie pumpkins waiting to be blended into pulp and doused with sugar. They bear little resemblance to other kinds of stringy or chalky winter squash that either need to be slathered in butter and brown sugar, or cooked into some kind of rich coconut milk curry to be enjoyable.
Ripened kabocha is sweet to eat, and not overly dry or starchy, any way you slice it. And slicing it will probably be one of your bigger challenges. (After finding it, which may also be a bit challenging outside of Japan.) But it will be worth it.
Kabocha is almost like a less-starchy sweet potato, which lends itself even better to creamy soups (like this one at Cafe Quarante-Quatre in Hiroshima), or desserts (like this kabocha chiffon cake that I ate last month in Tokyo, served with kabocha ice cream, and garnished with a powdered-sugary chip made of you guessed what).
But its sweetness won’t overshadow any savory flavors you pair it with: kabocha is versatile. It’s a little lacking on its own when simply steamed or boiled, but throw some kabocha cubes into a curry, some deep-fried kabocha into a crispy batch of tempura, or some grilled kabocha slices into a bowl of miso soup, and it will wake up the dish with both color and comfort.
One of my favorite ways to eat it also conveniently lines up with one of the easiest ways to cook it. First you need the patience to slowly seesaw your sharpest knife through the squash till you arrive at slabs small enough to deem “slices.” Then you simply place the slices in a pan with a bit of oil, and call on your patience once again, since you will be tempted to eat them even before they’ve started to brown.*
I am sad to admit that this easy pan-fried side dish (of kabocha that came pre-sliced from a grocery store here in Okayama, Japan) was part of the only dinner I actually cooked on my own during this whole 6-week trip. Sure, I made the sticky rice on the side, and a dipping sauce for the pumpkin (with ponzu, a kind of citrusy/vinegary soy sauce), but I bought those two chicken skewers in the photograph pre-made from the deli section of the grocery store.
What can I say, I love eating out in Japan. And all the imported produce here is marked up so high, it’s often cheaper to eat out than to cook in. I’ll be sad to leave this country where restaurant food usually hovers somewhere between tasty and spectacular, rarely dipping as low as the mediocre I so often encounter in the states. But on the other hand, it will be nice to be back in my own kitchen, cooking again.
* This is basically the same way you grill meat and vegetables at Japan’s popular Korean-bbq inspired yaki-niku (grilled meat) restaurants. When you’re out to eat, the restaurants have a burner and grill screen built into the table, but when preparing yaki-niku inside a home, many Japanese families have a large non-stick electric griddle to place at the center of the table instead.
Pan-fried Kabocha (Japanese Pumpkin)
(About 3 slices a person makes for a filling side dish.)
~ kabocha squash, cut in roughly ½-inch (or thinner) slices
~ 1-2 tsp. olive oil (per 3 slices of kabocha)
~ 2 Tbsp. ponzu (for the dipping sauce)
~ 1 Tbsp. soy sauce (for the dipping sauce)
~ a smidgen of Japanese mayonnaise
How to make it:
1. Slice the kabocha into slices thin enough to cook all the way through. (No need to peel it; you can eat the green rind!)
2. Heat the olive oil in a pan over low-medium heat for a minute or two, then add the kabocha slices and turn up the heat to medium or medium-high. Fry for between 2-5 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the slices. Flip the slices occasionally while frying to make sure that they are evenly browned.
3. Make a dipping sauce for the kabocha: I like to use a ratio of 2:1 ponzu to soy sauce, but ponzu also makes a nice dipping sauce on its own.
4. Optionally top with Japanese mayonnaise. Serve with rice and/or as an accompaniment to a main dish.