Since moving to the Hessian countryside from Tokyo in 2007, my German husband and I have been amused every autumn to see the Hokkaidokürbis (lit. Hokkaido pumpkin aka kuri kabocha 栗カボチャ) go on sale. . . and not only for the cute extra emphasis Germans put on the letter “i” when they say “Ho–ka–ee–do”. Having traversed the width and breadth of Hokkaido, we had never seen this onion-shaped, relatively small dark orange pumpkin either on sale or growing in Japan’s northernmost island. The majority of pumpkin growing does indeed take place in Hokkaido but the dark green kabocha (かぼちゃ) and the larger orange pumpkin associated with Halloween are the most commonly seen in Japanese supermarkets. Whenever we have Japanese guests in the fall and winter months, I serve them the a dish made with Hokkaidokürbis and they are inevitably also amused when we tell them what the Germans call the winter squash. My curiosity was further piqued by the fact that Hokkaidokürbis only has dedicated Wikipedia pages in German, French (potimarron), and English (red kuri squash)
|Carving a pumpkin with my kids in Nishikata (Bunkyo-ku) in October 2006|
This year, I decided to satisfy my curiosity by doing some research into the Hokkaidokürbis. First, the riddle of how my husband, a botanist who grew up here in Germany, was unfamiliar with this variety of squash. Squash, apparently, was not as common on the table of his childhood home in Lower Saxony as it was for me growing up in Canada. It also turns out that the Hokkaidokürbis variety of squash was introduced to Europe in the 1990s – a decade in which my husband had begun to spend extended periods of time studying or doing research in Hokkaido. I guess it just hadn’t become fashionable yet among his student friends in Marburg during the times he was on home soil.
Next, the question of the origins of the Hokkaidokürbis itself. Obviously, pumpkins are not native to Japan. Winter squash come from the Americas and did not even make their way to Europe until sometime after 1492. According to an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine, the first pumpkin to make its way to Japan was the Hubbard squash (known in Japan as Masakari kabocha) in 1878. It was introduced to farmers in Hokkaido by American agricultural experts, but the locals were not satisfied with the qualities of the humble Hubbard squash. They cultivated the squash from dark green-blue into a bright blood orange colour which they named Kuri aji (Cucurbita maxima convar Hubbardiana). “Kuri” means chestnut and “aji” means taste – hence the French name potimarron (“poti” from potiron=pumpkin; marron=chestnut). And indeed, the Hokkaidokürbis does have a nutty flavour to it. Trawling around the internet, I found a similar looking pumpkin on Yasai Navi that goes by the name Akaikuru-kuri-kabocha (赤皮栗かぼちゃ) – literally red-skinned chestnut pumpkin.
I must admit that I do like the flavour of and diversity of uses for the Hokkaidokürbis. As much as I enjoy kabocha, the mild, nutty taste of the Hokkaidokürbis has really grown on me. As I discover just how flexible the squash is for cooking, it has even begun to surpass my heretofore favourite squash – the cream-coloured butternut squash (バタ—ナッツ) – in my affections. Its medium size (1 to 2kg) makes it perfect for soup for 4-5 people. It holds its form well and with its bright red-orange skin it looks lovely in a risotto or other mixed dish. It also bakes well in the oven. Now that I’ve come to know the pumpkin here in Germany, I’m actually surprised that is a specialty variety in Japan itself. I think with a bit of marketing behind it, the beautiful and delicious red kuri squash could give dark green kabocha a run for its money.
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013