It’s Pumpkin Time!

Sunshine kabocha from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Picture courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

I can’t believe it’s already October 1st. Fall is upon us and Halloween is just around the corner… which means it’s pumpkin time!

Mind you, pumpkins haven’t always instilled such excitement in me.

I’ve always thought of the pumpkin as an all-American vegetable (or is it a fruit?). Growing up in Singapore, it was never a part of my diet. And unfortunately, my inaugural experience with the orange gourd was not a very pleasant one. My very first taste of pumpkin came in the form of a slice of pie when I was a college freshman in Seattle. The overly-sweet yet vaguely bitter filling slid down my throat in a glob of mush. Blaeh. Needless to say I wasn’t too fond of it.

Before all you pumpkin pie lovers out there start chastising me (my husband included), I have to admit it could’ve been the spice triumvirate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) overkill or perhaps because it was served at the dining hall… hmm…

However, I recently discovered its importance in Japanese culture and history when I was researching a story for Seattle Metropolitan magazine. You may have heard of kabocha (pronounced kah-boh-CHA), or Japanese squash/pumpkin. In the U.S., kabocha comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Black Forest is flat and round, while Hokkaido is teardrop-shaped–and the rinds range in color from forest green to tangerine and grayish-green. But they are all varieties originating from Japanese seeds.

Wouldn’t you know it, kabocha is very popular in Japan and finds its way into everything from tempura to wagashi (Japanese sweets). Easy-to-grow, kabocha has been credited with saving many Japanese from starvation after World War II when rice fields were mostly destroyed. (Read more about kabocha and Katsumi Taki, the Japanese farmer I interviewed here).

Then, I met Phiroum Svy who taught me how to make pumpkin custard. Yes, pumpkins grow in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia! On another occasion, my mom’s friend Auntie Helen used pumpkin instead of daikon to make traditional Chinese radish cake (lo bo gao). It was utterly yummy! Now I’m hooked on pumpkin and love finding new ways to cook it Asian-style.

If you use pumpkin in your Asian dishes, sweet or savory, please share!


Pumpkin Custard (Num Sang Khya L’peou)

IMG_1177 by you.

Hollowed-out pumpkins are filled with coconut custard in this delightful dessert that Phiroum Svy learned how to make from her grandma in Cambodia. When the pumpkin is cut, each wedge shows off the creamy yellow custard contrasting beautifully with the orange pumpkin flesh. Traditionally, larger pumpkins are used but Phiroum prefers to use cute little sugar pumpkins for individual servings.

Time: 1 hour (20 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Four 2- to 3-inch wide sugar pumpkins (or one 6- to 7-inch wide pumpkin)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup sugar
4 eggs

Wipe the pumpkins with a damp cloth to remove any dust or dirt.

Insert the tip of a sharp paring knife diagonally into the top of a pumpkin until it pierces through the skin and flesh and into the cavity. Make short cuts in a zigzag or hexagonal pattern and go around the stem in a circle to make a hole large enough to insert a teaspoon (1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter). With a smaller pumpkin, it might be easier just to slice the top off straight across. Repeat with the remaining pumpkins.

Lift off the lid and scrape out the seeds and stringy bits with a teaspoon.

Set up your steamer.

Fill the steamer pan half full of water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium until you are ready to steam.

In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar and coconut milk together. Crack the eggs into the bowl and whisk until just incorporated. Place the pumpkins in the top tier of your steamer with the pumpkin lids on the side. Using a ladle, carefully pour equal amounts of custard into each pumpkin cavity until only about three quarters full since the custard will rise and pouf up beyond the hole. Try not to spill any custard over the sides of the pumpkins. If you do, wipe it clean with a damp cloth.

Return the water in the steamer to a rolling boil. Set the steamer basket or rack on top of the steamer pan. Cover and steam over medium heat for 30 to 35 minutes (UPDATE: If using larger pumpkins, steam for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours). The custard is set when it doesn’t jiggle when shaken and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Don’t steam for more than 45 minutes or the pumpkin will fall apart.

When done, turn off the heat and wait for the steam to subside before lifting the lid. Lift it away from you to prevent condensation from dripping onto the pumpkins, or scalding yourself. Carefully remove the pumpkins from the steamer and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 10 to 12 hours to let the custard firm up. Don’t worry if the custard falls a little.

Cut each pumpkin into 4 to 6 wedges and serve cold or warm (heat it up in the microwave). Use a spoon to scoop up some pumpkin flesh together with the custard, making sure you get a little of each with every bite.

Pat’s notes:
Instead of sugar pumpkins, any winter squash such as kabocha squash or acorn squash work just as well.


17 thoughts on “It’s Pumpkin Time!

  1. I attempted to make this (not using your recipe) a couple of years ago and it turned out disastrous! I told myself I will have to revisit the dish.. Maybe one day I’ll get off my lazy arse and do it!

  2. Pat, Forgot to tell you that I normally make this recipe with the tiny baby “ornamental” pumpkins that are in season around October. It is very original and cute looking. They are edible, which I learned from my Grandmother when she taught me how to make this. I will have to send you a photo the next time I make it. Phiroum

  3. Great job Pat! I so happy to see that you finally made this pumpkin recipe I gave you. It looks so delicious. I saw the test recipe post with this recipe made. By the way, your blog is awesome. I can’t wait until the cookbook is published. Phiroum

  4. Beni, you are correct. Kabocha features prominently in a lot of SE Asian cooking and I’ve heard that story as well.

    Diana, thanks for the tip! Pumpkins should be allowed to cure for a few months. Another way to spot a good pumpkin is to look for a stem that looks like cork.

  5. My husband’s aunt was just explaining this recipe to me but she couldn’t exactly get the words out right because she doesn’t speak English very well. So I’m glad I found someone who can translate it. She explained to me “the older looking the pumpkin” (she meant the ones with more brown or veins on the outside) the better it will taste. Just a tip from my Cambodian in-laws.

  6. There is also a dessert like this found in Thailand and probably other parts of Southeast Asia too, although I have only ever had it prepared by Cambodian people so I cannot say how it is the same or different from other variations.

    My mother says that sometimes Khmer people (particularly those from the provinces closer to Thailand, but sometimes just those people who like the flavor) add essence of pandan leaf to the custard to give it that green color and to add a little kick to the flavor.

    Kabocha squash is used in other dishes in Cambodia too, in some curries and cooked with pork as well. There is a story that ‘kabocha’ comes from a mispronunciation/mishearing of ‘kampuchea’ (a former name for Cambodia), which Japanese thought to be the origin of this squash.

  7. I was so surprised to find this recipe. Just yesterday I was reminiscing about the delicious green kobacha custard served at ANGHOR WAT, a favorite Cambodian restaurant in Yoyogi, Tokyo. Since we could barely read Japanese, we would just tell the owner how much we wanted to spend and he would prepare a feast. The ending was always a beautiful slice of kobacha custard. I can’t wait to make it! With this essay, and the one on chakaiseki you have rekindled fond memories of Tokyo. Look forward to more of your writing and your book. Thank you!

  8. Pat, my mom also used to make savory pumpkin cake. She called it Kue Waloh, which has similar ingredients to the Lo Ba Gow. I haven’t attempted to make it even though I enjoyed it whenever she made one. I’m going to dig up mom’s recipe and try it while the pumpkins are fresh on the market. Your pumpkin custard looks silky and delicious…. I’d probably add a pinch of salt since I love the “gurih” taste of coconut milk.

  9. Oh, this one definitely needs to go on the table on the 31st!
    BTW, no we don’t really celebrate Halloween though some children do come around trick or treating now. But then we have Guy Fawkes the next week anyway.

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