I had this for supper tonight. To be precise, I had a soup made of kabocha and turkey stock with curry seasoning. As it bubbled on the stove like saffron-coloured magma, it almost made sounds like “kabocha.” But really, I think “kabocha” sounds something like one of these hitting the ground after being dropped from a high window. The word puts me in mind of the favourite book of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes: Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie. No doubt that’s a reason I thought for a long time that this big squash was called kablocha with an l.
Oh, yes, that’s what a kabocha is: a big squash. In the Latin, it’s a Curcubita maxima. Don’t confuse it with kombucha, which is a kind of fermented tea the health benefits of which are controversial. A kabocha is a big, rustic-looking green or orange winter squash with grainy, sweet orange flesh. It looks a bit like a small pumpkin as conceived by a late-20th-century ceramic artist.
I like the squash well enough, but I like its name much more. Yes, because of the percussive, even explosive sound of it – a kaboom from the bouche, kicking from the back, bursting from the lips, echoing off the tongue tip. But not just that. Its origin is quite the treat.
The immediate origin of kabocha is – did you guess it? – Japanese. You probably don’t think of great big gourds as something Japanese. And fair enough: this squash isn’t from there originally; it was brought in by Portuguese merchants. It’s used quite a bit in Japanese cooking now, though. But the Japanese name comes from the Portuguese name for it.
The Portuguese name is Cambodia abóbora. The Portuguese sailors called it that because they got it from Cambodia. The Japanese adapted that to their phonotactics. So your kabocha is Cambodia just as your cashmere is Kashmir and your cravat is Croat.
But where did Cambodia come from? You may know that in Khmer (the language of the land) the name of the country is Kampuchea. But its name was originally Sanskrit, Kambuja (possibly named after a purported founding king, but it’s not certain). And so my use of curry in the soup gains a little extra justification.
But wait, there’s more. This squash is not the only thing named (mutatedly) after Cambodia. There’s also the gamboge tree and its resin, a resin used to produce a yellow dye – which is used to colour the robes of Theravada Buddhist monks, which are about the same hue as the soup I had for supper tonight.