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.


Aromatherapy in a Bowl

Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who has responded to my plea for recipe testers! That being said, please be patient with me–I have this horrendous cold that I can’t seem to shake off. Concentrating with a fuzzy brain hasn’t been easy the last few days so I’m busy playing catch up. I did find some relief though … in a comforting bowl of Cambodian herb-scented chicken soup.

Both my hubby, hungry_hobbit, and I have been under the weather–he with bronchitis–so I decided to make this aromatic soup I learned from Phiroum (remember her from the boning chicken episode?). This Southeast Asian version has all the healing qualities of mama’s chicken noodle soup and I guarantee it’ll chase the blues away on a chilly winter day!

Cambodian Herb-Scented Chicken Soup (S’ngao Chruok Moan)

Just about every ingredient from sawtooth herb to lemongrass gives this refreshing soup its sprightly flavor and delightful fragrance. If you prefer, you can use boneless chicken meat but the bones give the stock better flavor. I also advise against using breast meat as it gets dry after boiling. Try tilapia or salmon fillets instead of chicken.

Time: 40 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

6 cups water
1 tablespoon rice
4 bone-in chicken thighs (about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 sawtooth herb leaves
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 1/8-inch slice galangal
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, smashed and cut into fourths on the diagonal*
8 oz mushrooms, quartered (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
4 kaffir lime leaves**

1/4 cup minced cilantro
1/4 cup minced sawtooth herbs
1/4 cup green onions, cut into ‘O’s
1/4 cup minced Thai basil
2 limes, cut into wedges

In a 4-quart pot, bring water and rice to a boil over high heat. Add chicken, sawtooth herbs, spring onion, galangal and lemongrass. Bring to a boil again then simmer, covered, over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Take out chicken, discard bones and cut meat into bite-size pieces. Return chicken to pot and add mushrooms. Add fish sauce, salt, and kaffir lime leaves. Simmer another 3 to 4 minutes. Soup is ready when mushrooms are done.

Fish out the large herbs and ladle soup into individual bowls. Garnish with herbs and lime and serve with dipping sauce (below).

*Smashing lemongrass releases its flavor. Instead of a cleaver, use a meat tenderizer to smash it.
**Crumple kaffir lime leaves in your hand just before adding to the soup to release its essential oils and flavor.
Dipping sauce (Tik Chror Louk)

Juice from 1/2 large lime (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon water
4 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 Thai chili peppers, chopped into rounds
1 garlic clove, minced
4 Thai basil leaves, minced

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and stir well.

Of Stuffed Wings and Tight Socks–Stuffed Cambodian Chicken Wings (Moane Teum)

“It’s just like pulling off a really tight sock,” said Phiroum Svy matter-of-factly. I had never thought of it that way. Then again, I’d never tried deboning a whole chicken before. (Here’s some trivia for you: debone and bone are synonyms, go figure!)

We were in Phiroum’s Covington kitchen preparing to make a Cambodian dish called moane teum which means yoked or joined chicken. It’s so named probably because the chicken is deboned and stuffed with a ground pork mixture, hence the joining of two meats? Visions of turducken came to mind.

Anyways, Phiroum was very eager to show me how to debone the chicken, thighs, wings and all.

**Advisory warning: if you are squeamish about raw chicken, do not, I repeat, do not read on.**

With all the patience of a grade school teacher she rolled up her sleeves and took her paring knife to the chicken’s breast bone. She inserted it into one side of the breast bone and sliced down the middle.

Then little by little, bit by bit, she separated the meat from the bone.


“The trick is to keep your knife as close to the bone as possible so as not to tear the skin,” she advised. “When you find the leg joint, insert the knife just against the bone and detach as you go.” The same goes for the wing joint.
Phiroum confessed that she hadn’t done this in a long time and professed to be out of practice. But watching her deftly scrape meat away from the bone and tug at the chicken skin, I was doubtful. Very soon all that lay on the cutting board was a limp chicken carcass soon to be stuffed.
I don’t know how many of you out there would be adventurous enough to try this at home so I won’t go into too much detail (if you’re a die-hard, go here). Besides, the best way to learn is through hands-on experience. Ask Phiroum–she’s a self-taught deboner.


Cambodian Stuffed Chicken Wings (Moane Teum)

Whether whole or as wings, this stuffed chicken recipe can only be described as mmm … mmm … lip-smacking delicious. I tried my hand at deboning wings and yes, it’s a lot of work but it’s worth it! It’s a popular Cambodian dish (the Thais and Vietnamese have a similar dish) but not something you’d eat or make everyday since it’s pretty labor-intensive. Even though I’ve written it up as a chicken wing recipe, you can use the stuffing for a whole deboned chicken (about 4-5 pounds) if you dare. Be warned, you’re going to have to practice your sewing skills too.


The versatile stuffing can also be used as a filling for fried spring rolls or in a rolled pork tenderloin.

Makes: 8-10 servings

20 deboned chicken wings, wingtips included (*deboning instructions below)

2-1/2 pounds ground pork

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)

1 cup mung bean thread noodles, soaked for one hour and cut into 1/2-inch lengths (about 1/8 of 16oz package)

8 wood ear mushrooms, chopped coarsely (1/2 cup)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

1/2 tablespoon sweet soy sauce or oyster sauce

1-1/2 tablespoon fish sauce

In a big bowl, marinate deboned wings with 2 tablespoons soy sauce.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Your hand is your best tool.

Gently squeeze meat mixture into each wing, filling until the wing tip joint. Don’t worry about holes in the skin.

Place wings in a baking pan, top down (you want the serving side to brown and crisp during the second half of cooking). Broil on low in oven till golden brown on one side, about 20 minutes. Flip and cook for another 20 minutes. Do not use baking mode because chicken will not brown.


Cut into slices and serve immediately.


If you stuffed a whole chicken, this is what it should look like:


Deboning wings

*Using a small sharp paring knife, start at the top of the drummette. Gently scrape the meat away from the bone leaving the skin intact. Pull skin and meat down as you go. At the first joint, use tip of knife to slide into joint to remove skin away from the bone first. Continue easing the flesh away from the bone. Push the skin and flesh down to expose the bones and carefully twist each bone out. Important: don’t break the bone till you get to the second joint!