Japan loves Halloween. It’s a fairly new holiday here, as it used to only be celebrated by foreigners before it became popular among the locals too. Every store and restaurant has displays and decorations (some will even give a discount if you show up in costume this weekend) and all of the typical treats and candies have special Halloween packaging. There are costume contests and other Halloween type events at the local malls and trick or treating on base for all of the military and local Japanese kids. Since pumpkins are so iconic in America surrounding Halloween, Japan has also adopted this specialty flavor for the month of October. As exciting as this may sound, it’s not the typical pumpkin spice flavor that Americans know and love. In Japan, their “pumpkin” is what we know as kabocha squash. You can imagine how this has become very disorienting when buying, for example, pumpkin Kit-Kats and having them taste like raw squash, and not like the warm fall flavors that we are accustomed to. (My apologies again to my siblings and everyone else that I convinced to try the “pumpkin” Kit-Kats I brought back with me.) The pumpkin ice cream that I found was better, probably because it was made by Häagen Dazs, but the best thing I’ve had was the pumpkin ramen from one of our favorite ramen shops. To summarize my taste testing experiences so far, pumpkin specials in Japan are much better when they are savory rather than sweet.
Japanese pumpkin, or kabocha, is dark green on the outside with a bright orange flesh. It has a nutty, earthy flavor, much like acorn or butternut squash, and a very similar texture to butternut squash as well. It can easily replace butternut squash in many recipes, which is great because it’s available all year round here, but is also delicious just sliced thin and roasted or fried as tempura. This Japanese pumpkin and ricotta toasts recipe is one of my favorite ways to use kabocha squash and, interestingly enough, was the first way I prepared it before I even knew how popular it was here.
Rewind to two years ago: we had just moved to Oki and Colin was sent on a trip for an undetermined amount of time (got to love the AF pilot life). Meanwhile, I was waiting on the two-month hiring process for my job, chasing after a 10 week old puppy and trying to get accustomed to grocery shopping in Japan. Since I had a lot of free time, and no one home to question the new and sometimes weird-looking produce that I bought, I knew I had to try out this recipe as soon as it was posted on one of my favorite blogs. I quickly fell in love with kabocha squash (as well as homemade ricotta, but that recipe will have to wait for a different post) and haven’t turned down a pumpkin special in Japan since.
To start, kabocha squash is roasted in the oven, softening it to just the right texture while giving it a nutty flavor. Meanwhile, the onions are caramelized with apple cider vinegar until they are tangy and almost jam-like. The squash and caramelized onions are mashed together and spooned over a thick slice of your favorite bread, that’s first been smothered with creamy ricotta cheese. Paired with some garlic shrimp on the side for a quick weeknight meal or set out as an appetizer before a dinner party, this recipe is easy and simple, yet bursting with flavor. Hopefully, as it did with me, these toasts will give you a new love for Japanese pumpkin, and then if you’re ever visiting Japan in October, you won’t be afraid to try one of their other, unique creations!