Whether the markets in your region label it kabocha, kabocho, kabotcha, Japanese pumpkin or Japanese squash, the bright orange flesh of this winter squash with Asian origins is known for holding its shape when cooked. Ranging in size from 2 to 5 pounds, with dark green skin and shaped like a slightly flattened ball, Japanese pumpkin is high in fiber and beta-carotene. The squash's sweet flavor emerges when it is cooked in styles ranging from traditional ethnic to contemporary vegetarian.
Microwave a Japanese pumpkin on high for 1 to 2 minutes to soften it for easy cutting and peeling. Alternatively, place the squash in a large pan of water over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, allow the squash to cook another 2 minutes and then drain. Set the pumpkin aside to cool for 10 to 20 minutes before handling it further.
Peel random sections of the dark green skin off a 1/2-pound section of Japanese pumpkin to make simmered sweet kabocha, a classic vegetable side dish in Japanese cookery. Cut the squash into 1-inch cubes, each with a little bit of peel still on it. Simmer the pieces in a mixture of 1 cup water and a tablespoon each of sugar, sake, soy sauce and mirin – a sweet rice wine – until the squash is just barely soft enough to insert a toothpick. Serve the squash warm or refrigerate to serve as a chilled appetizer.
Cut a Japanese pumpkin in half, cutting around the center so the stem end is on one section and the blossom end on the other, to make a savory vegetarian entree. Scoop out the seeds and pulp. Set the squash cut side up on an oiled baking pan. Fill each cavity with a mixture of fresh bread crumbs seasoned with sage, salt and pepper and moistened with melted butter and broth. For a gluten-free version, fill the squash with a mixture of cooked rice, sauteed mushrooms and seasonings. Cover the stuffed pumpkin with aluminum foil and cook in an oven set at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour.
Remove the seeds, pulp and peel from a Japanese pumpkin and cut it into 1-inch cubes to make a colorful, delicately sweet vegetable side dish to accompany fish or white meat. Mix the cubed squash with 2 to 3 tablespoons each of sesame oil and honey, 1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger and a generous pinch of salt. Microwave the mixture, covered with plastic wrap, on high for 5 minutes, then let it sit for another 5 minutes. Test the squash for softness with a fork. If necessary, microwave again in 1- to 2-minute increments until the cubes are tender all the way through.
Small cubes of Japanese pumpkin may be added to beans, stews and soups cooked in a slow cooker to add texture, bright color and a slightly sweet layer of flavoring to the finished dish.
Do not use Japanese pumpkin that has soft spots or shriveled skin – signs the squash has aged beyond the typical storage time and may have spoiled inside.