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Southeast Asian Ideas With Pumpkin

Kasma Loha-unchit, October 15th, 2010

Winter squashes are used for various dishes is Southeast Asian Cooking.

With the autumn leaves rustling, orange and golden colors are appearing all around us. On tables at farmer’s markets, produce counters in supermarkets and seasonal pumpkin patches at corner lots, the colorful winter squashes are the smash of the season’s harvest. Seeing them all around stirs up delicious memories of the golden squashes I grew up with and the wonderful dishes in which they reveal their glory.

Golden Squash

Golden squash, Sukhothai

The squash I grew up knowing as “pumpkin” is a much different variety from the bright orange ones that are carved and decorated as jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. Smaller, flatter and more disc-shaped, its mottled dark green peel turns to a dull greyish green, tinged with spots of yellow and light orange as it ripens. Inside, the flesh is a vibrant golden yellow, hence we call it “golden squash.”

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Luckily there are now so many different varieties of winter squashes to choose from in Bay Area produce markets. Relatives to the golden squashes of home are the kabocha and the kalabasa. Tasty and sweet, both these varieties revive recollections of my favorite flavors from childhood. Brought to us here by Japanese American farmers, the kabocha (meaning “little pumpkin”) is now widely available not only in Asian markets, but in supermarkets and neighborhood grocery stores as well. It is prized by Southeast Asian immigrants as can be seen by its availability in most of their markets, to the exclusion of other “pumpkins.” Kalabasa, on the other hand, is only beginning to become popular and its availability is still limited.

Kabocha Squash

Cut kabocha squash

I love kabocha. A fully ripe one has a delightful natural sweetness. Cooked, its smooth, creamy texture melts in the mouth, revealing a rich and nutty flavor. Without the stringiness and sponginess of common varieties of pumpkins, some of my friends tell me it makes an exquisite pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

Squash Carving

Carving a squash


Southeast Asians also carve their pumpkins, but in floral designs on the outside, while the cavity inside is used as a bowl to hold a sweet coconut-egg custard that is steamed until both pumpkin and custard are cooked through. This is sliced and served in small wedges, the golden flesh of the pumpkin surrounding the caramel-colored custard – a lovely and delicious dessert. (See Coconut Egg custard (Sangkaya).) Instead of pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, we make bite-size pumpkin cakes with rice flour and shredded coconut steamed in small banana leaf cups, (See a picture of Steamed Pumpkin Cakes (Kanom Faktong).) and a sweet soup of pumpkin sticks in coconut milk. (See Sweet Soup of Kabocha in Coconut Milk (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong).) As you may have guessed, coconut is a favorite companion for our pumpkins.

Custard

Custard in squash

Besides desserts and sweet treats, we use golden squashes in different stages of ripeness for a wide variety of dishes, including soups, salads, appetizers, pickles, vegetable courses and curries. Try the recipe for Golden Pumpkin Coconut Soup (Gkaeng Liang Fak Tong). It is simple and nutritious, but because it is very rich, in the tropical heat, we usually eat only a few mouthfuls of it along with rice, much as we would eat curry and other dishes at a meal. With the colder Northern Californian climate, however, the richness of this soup can be fully appreciated, giving warmth and comfort. Try this soup with some of the hearty sourdough bread for which the Bay Area is known.

Pumpkin Soup

Golden Pumpkin Soup

For a delicious pumpkin soup, use a ripe kabocha squash – one with peel that has turned a light greyish green, splashed with splotches of yellow and orange. But it shouldn’t be so old that it has dried out. Pick one with a good weight for its size. If the squash is under-ripe (i.e., still deep green in color), use a natural sweetener such as palm or coconut sugar to help bring its nutty flavor through the coconut milk. A green kabocha squash will ripen when stored in a well ventilated area for several weeks, or even a few months, so I always have one on hand. It is pretty to look at in the hanging basket in my kitchen. If you are not able to find kabocha, substitute with a good variety of winter squash that has a sweet and buttery flavor.


Here are links to recipes mentioned in this blog:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, October 2010

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