Kabocha No Nimono (かぼちゃの煮物) literally means “simmered kabocha” in Japanese, and it’s one of the most popular ways of enjoying this sweet and starchy winter squash in Japan. This kabocha squash recipe is good hot or cold, which makes it a tasty and colorful side dish to add to your autumn table or a bento box lunch. Mix it up with other ingredients like carrots, daikon, shiitake mushrooms, or bamboo shoots.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- Cutting the kabocha so they’re all roughly the same size ensures they all cook through in about the same amount of time, and you don’t have any pieces that are still crunchy while the smaller ones turn to mush.
- Cooking the nimono at a bare simmer ensures the ingredients don’t knock against each other and fall apart.
- Using a drop lid ensures the kabocha and tofu stay submerged so they get seasoned evenly without stirring.
- Letting the nimono cool in the broth allows the flavors of the savory dashi to soak into the kabocha and tofu.
Ingredients for Cooking Kabocha Squash
- Kabocha squash – Kabocha squash refers to Japanese cultivars of winter squash (a.k.a. Japanese pumpkin). I used a quarter of a very large kabocha. The quarter weighed 635 grams before being seeded and trimmed and was about 500 grams after the seeds and stem areas were removed. If you can’t find kabocha pumpkins, this also works with butternut squash, acorn squash or delicata squash.
- Atsuage – Atsuage is a type of Japanese fried tofu, and it works well for stews like this because the fried exterior prevents the delicate tofu from crumbling.
- Dashi – Dashi is the Japanese word for “soup stock,” and it generally refers to a Japanese-style broth made with konbu (kelp) and katsuobushi (cooked, smoked, dried, and fermented skipjack tuna). You can follow my recipe to make homemade dashi or use dashi packs or granules. To make this plant-based, you can make vegan dashi by steeping konbu and dried shiitake mushrooms in water overnight.
- Sake – Sake is added to Japanese foods to increase the amount of umami in the food. Think of it as natural MSG. The alcohol in the sake evaporates while it cooks, so this should not be an issue. You can learn more about this in this video.
- Soy sauce – A small amount of soy sauce adds umami to the simmered kabocha while deepening the orange hue of the pumpkin. Adding too much soy sauce will turn the kabocha brown. That’s why I recommend using usukuchi soy sauce, which has a lighter color than dark Japanese soy sauce. If you can’t find usukuchi soy sauce near you, I recommend halving the soy sauce and adding an extra 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of salt.
- Sugar – Although the kabocha has some sweetness, adding a small amount of sugar balances out the salty seasonings in the broth. Other sweeteners such as maple syrup or agave will work as well.
- Salt – Using soy sauce alone to season the kabocha will make the stock a dark brown and cause the kabocha to lose its vibrant orange color. That’s why I use a combination of soy sauce and salt.
How to Cut Kabocha Squash
Kabocha squash is very dense and can be challenging to cut. I recommend using a sharp, heavy knife to cut it up, and be sure your cutting board is on a stable surface. If your cutting board tends to slip on the countertop, place a damp kitchen towel between the board and your counter to keep it from moving.
The skin is edible so there’s no need to peel it, but if there are any brown scars on the skin they can be tough so trim them off. Then you want to cut the kabocha into more manageable pieces. I usually start by cutting it in half. Then you can lay the halves with the cut side down and then split them in half again to make quarters.
Next, use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. Then you can use your knife to trim off the stem and any woody areas near the base of the squash. Then you want to slice the kabocha into 1 1/2-inch thick slices. If you have a sharp knife, I usually like the cut from the skin side as the kabocha will be more stable this way. However, if your knife isn’t very sharp, you may have trouble cutting through the skin. In this case, you can cut from the inside of the kabocha toward the skin.
Finally, you want to cut the slices into squares or triangles roughly 1 1/2 inches in size.
At this point, you can use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to chamfer the sharp edges of each piece of kabocha. This not only gives the kabocha an attractive rounded shape, but it also helps prevent the kabocha from crumbling when you cook it.
How to Cook Kabocha Squash
There are many ways to prepare kabocha squash, but the most traditional preparation in Japan is to simmer it in dashi stock until it’s creamy and tender.
I start by adding the dashi, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and salt to a wide pot that’s just large enough to fit the kabocha squash and atsuage in a single layer.
Bringing the dashi mixture to a boil. Then, add the kabocha and atsuage. Cover the kabocha with a drop lid to ensure the ingredients stay submerged. If you don’t have a drop lid, a flat plate that fits in your pot, a piece of aluminum foil, or a sheet of food-safe paper towel will work. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer; if the liquid simmers too aggressively, it will cause the squash to fall apart.
Simmer the nimono until a toothpick can be passed through the largest piece of kabocha. This should take about 10-15 minutes (depending on how thick your kabocha is).
When the nimono is cooked, turn off the heat and let everything cool to room temperature while submerged in the broth. This allows the flavors of the dashi to penetrate deeper into the ingredients. You can warm it up and serve it, or pack the nimono into a container and refrigerate it overnight to get maximum flavor penetration.
Other Kabocha Recipes
Kabocha literally means “pumpkin” in Japanese. It’s believed that pumpkins, a New World food, were brought to Japan by the Portuguese via Cambodia. That’s why the name “kabocha” is thought to be a corruption of the Portuguese name for Cambodia, “Camboja.” Hybridized over the following centuries, today’s kabocha is typically green-skinned with bright orange flesh that’s sweet and starchy, making it closer to sweet potatoes in taste and texture than most other types of winter squash. It’s loaded with Vitamin A (beta-carotene), Vitamin C, fiber and minerals.
Kabocha is a 3-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
ka like copy
bo like boat
cha like charcoal
Japanese simmered kabocha is made with dashi stock (which typically contains fish). That said, you can substitute plant-based dashi, such as one made from konbu alone or a combination of konbu and dried shiitake mushrooms, to make this vegan and vegetarian-friendly.
- Add the dashi, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and salt to a pot that will fit the kabocha and tofu in a single layer and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Add the cubed kabocha and atsuage and cover the ingredients with a drop lid to keep the ingredients submerged. Lower the heat as needed to maintain a bare simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes or until the kabocha is tender enough for a toothpick to pass through.
- Turn off the heat and let the kabocha nimono cool to room temperature. I recommend letting the kabocha and tofu soak in the liquid overnight in the fridge, but you can also reheat it and serve it the same day if you’re in a rush.