It’s hard to miss Hokkaido Squash season in Germany, with special menus and all the farmers’ markets and vegetable stands piled high with the popular red-orange “Hokkaido Squash.” Wait, hold on… Hokkaido? That’s a region in Japan. And all the squash and pumpkins are new-world vegetables, anyway. So how the heck did Germany make the Hokkaido pumpkin its own?
Our food history on the Hokkaido Kürbis takes us back to the 1500s, when the Portugese brought south and central-American pumpkins back to Europe. Reports of pumpkins exist in both Europe and Asia from this time. Those Portugese traders really got around.
Despite (or maybe because of?) their exotic introduction, pumpkins were mainly regarded for oil production or as animal feed across Central Europe until the late 20th Century. It was also known by some as a canned product, appearing as sweet or sour pumpkin. But seed companies note that the beloved Hokkaido variety has been successfully grown in Germany since the 1990s, and all evidence shows me that this squash has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in the years since.
Nowdays, the so-called “Hokkaido Kürbis” drives one of the primary culinary microseasons across Germany. “Kürbiszeit” (pumpkin time!) appears in special menus across all the farm-to-table restaurants. “Kürbiscremesuppe” (pumpkin-cream soup) is delicious and suddenly ubiquitious, and bites of Kürbis appear in everything from ravioli and sauces to the local variation of pizza (Flammkuchen) as a topping.
But, SURPRISE! the so-called “Hokkaido Pumpkin” actually has very little to do with the Hokkaido region of Japan.
In 1878 U.S. agricultural consultants brought the Hubbard, a hard winter squash, to Japan, and the squash we now know as the “Hokkaido” or “Red Kuri” was developed around 1933 in Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture) by Japanese breeder Saichirō Matsumoto (松本 佐 一郎) from Utsugi-machi.
Matsumoto reportedly worked for years with the Hubbard to finally develop the current “Uchiki kuri” variety. Its longer name is Utsugi-akagawa-amaguri-kabocha (akagawa = red skin, amaguri = sweet chestnut, kabocha = pumpkin), which is fairly descriptive.
And my kudos to Matsumoto! It really is a marvellous squash! His kitchen-friendly orange-red Uchiki Kuri squash has nutty, non-fiberous flesh and can be cooked and consumed skin-on, unlike many of the other hard-shell pumpkin varieties.
One theory about the Hokkaido misnomer that I’m inclined to believe is the idea that the shipping of produce from Japan to Germany originated from Hokkaido, the launching port, if not the point of origin/production. This makes sense in the context of many other foods around the world that are known by their shipping lanes or materials more than their sourcing.
While the Americas are awash in squash, including what I knew as a “Red Kuri Squash” and Germany knows as “Hokkaido Kürbis,” the most ubiquitious hard squashes in my region were always the butternut, turban, acorn, spaghetti squash, cheese pumpkin and the Dickinson, a classic orange pumpkin that we carve, stuff, roast and use in so many sweet and savory ways.
And let us not forget that in North America, the pumpkin is so legendary in spiced autumnal pies, it has given birth to home fragrances, a billion scented candles and the much-beloved/much-loathed autumnal “Pumpkin Pie Spiced Lattes.”
Not so in Germany! Here, the pumpkin nearly always a SAVORY food, and I even had the pleasure of serving some German friends their first-ever bites of… gasp! pumpkin PIE! last autumn. Naturally, they found it nice, if weird.
So there you are. Central American origins. Portugese transportation. Japanese innovation. Late, (but passionate!) adoption by Germany. That’s how you end up with a Japanese squash as Germany’s most beloved pumpkin.
I’ll end this piece with a recipe for Kürbiscremesuppe, which is a fantastic way to use this little gem.
German Kuerbiscremesuppe AKA Pumpkin Cream Soup
- 1 kg (just over 2 lbs) pumpkin, seeded and cut into small cubes of similar size (use Red Kuri, Butternut or Acorn)
- 2 onions, skinned and chopped
- 2 Tablespoons of butter or oil
- 2 Tablespoons of flour
- 800 ml (about 3 1/2 cups) vegetable broth
- 200 g (about 1 cup) whipping cream or coconut milk
- Salt, Pepper to taste
- Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- Roasted pumpkin seeds or fresh-chopped chives/parsley (optional)
- After you chop the vegetables, add the butter or oil to a large pot and set it over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and pumpkin for 10 minutes.
- Add the flour, coating it with oil.
- Add the broth and cook the vegetables over a lower heat for 25 minutes.
- Add the whipping cream or coconut milk before blending the mixture with an immersion blender, or, as an alternative, you could cool the mixture and use a blender to puree it to a smooth texture. Just make sure you don't use an upright blender it while the soup is still hot or you'll end up with a mess.
- Add salt, pepper and a bit of ground nutmeg, to taste. At this point, you can cool and store it for up to 3 days, or serve warm with optional herbs and/or pumpkin seeds as garnish.
Note: You can easily make this recipe vegan by using oil instead of butter and coconut milk instead of whipping cream!
A quick squeeze of lemon or lime can give this soup a bright note. This is also a very flexible recipe, so you can add some peeled, cubed apples or pears, sweet carrots and even a few potatoes alongside the vegetables in step one.