By Sayuri Nitani / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSETOUCHI, Okayama — We’re at the peak of summer vegetable season right now. I recently heard about a type of pumpkin that has flesh that can be separated into thin strips and eaten like somen noodles. To discover the secrets of this vegetable, I flew to Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, where it is produced in large quantities.
The vegetable is called kinshiuri, or spaghetti squash, and is a member of the pumpkin family. It is also known as somen kabocha (pumpkin) in Japan because when boiled, its fibers loosen and can be separated into noodle-like strips. It is originally from North America and was first cultivated in Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Setouchi’s Ushimado district, where the pumpkin is widely grown, faces the Seto Inland Sea, sometimes referred to as the Aegean Sea of Japan because of its beautiful scenery.
The district began specializing in somen pumpkins due to the emergence of rival production areas, but it has long been known as the home of pumpkin production in Japan. Cultivation of somen pumpkins began locally in around 1975 and currently about 35 farmers ship 300 tons each year.
I visited the farm of Kazuhiro Yamamoto, 62, head of the JA Okayama agricultural cooperative’s Ushimado summer vegetable division. Located about a kilometer from the coastline, his fields are brimming with the large leaves of somen pumpkins. As I looked below the leaves, I found an abundance of cream-colored, oval-shaped pumpkins measuring roughly 25 centimeters in length and 20 centimeters in diameter. “Watch out for the prickly hairs growing on the stem,” Yamamoto warned. I picked a pumpkin up and was surprised by its weight. According to Yamamoto, the pumpkins weigh about two kilograms.
The pumpkin seedlings are planted in mid-March and in early April when orange-yellow flowers begin to bloom, workers assist in the pollination process. Shipments start at the end of May. The harvest peaks in mid-July and continues through the end of August.
“The pumpkins need to fully ripen in the ground so the flesh is easier to separate after boiling. When you flick them with your fingers, the fully ripened ones make clanging sounds,” Yamamoto said as he mimicked the sound.
I cut a stem with scissors, which creates a louder sound than I anticipated. “The stems are originally rounded, and the riper the pumpkins are, the stringier the stems become,” Yamamoto told me. “The stem’s center becomes shaped like a star; it requires a lot of strength to cut.”
Yamamoto cut a harvested pumpkin in half. The center is white-hued with seeds and pulp in the middle. I vaguely noticed a smell similar to that of ordinary pumpkins. “They have a plainer flavor than [most] pumpkins. You can enjoy eating them in various ways,” Yamamoto said.
I took one home and tried cooking it. It was fun to take apart the flesh and separate it into thin strips in cold water. I made a salad by mixing the pumpkin with crab-flavored kamaboko fish paste and mayonnaise and made stir fry with maitake mushrooms and pork. The dishes were delicious, accented by the pumpkin’s crunchy texture. I think people can eat these pumpkins even if they lose their appetite in the hot summer weather.
JA Okayama provides cooking tips for somen pumpkin on its website and in leaflets:
1. Cut the pumpkin into three or four round sliced portions, and remove seeds and pulp.
2. Boil the pumpkin in hot water for about eight minutes.
3. Place sliced portions in cold water and separate the flesh into noodle-like strips.
4. Squeeze out any excess moisture.
“Please be careful not to overboil the pumpkin or forgo cooling it completely. Doing either can ruin the flavor,” said Yoshifumi Imayoshi, a JR Okayama Setouchi Eino Center official.
You can dip the pumpkin in mentsuyu dipping sauce like somen noodles, or eat it in a salad with ponzu sauce or other kinds of dressing.
Pumpkins can be ordered from the JR Okayama Ipponmatsu direct sales store (0869-25-1900, Japanese only). They cost about ¥500 each, excluding shipping.
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