Kalabasa: Find Out About The Local Filipino Squash
Winter comes with a bounty of warm dishes and comfort foods.
Soups and stews become a major part of the weekly menu, and the racks once occupied with refreshing veggies are filled with hearty goodies.
And for a fan of Filipino cuisine, one of those hearty goodies will likely be a kalabasa.
Also known as “Cucurbita maxima,” and “calabaza,” Kalabasa is a greenish squash grown in tropical regions of America, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Florida, and countries like the West Indies, and the Philipines. It is eaten either raw, sauteed, or made into a stew, most infamously, Ginaatang.
However, is this all you need to know about it? Definitely not!
In this article, we will dive deep into everything there is to know about Kalabasa, from its very name to its uses, origin, health benefits, and anything in between.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is Kalabasa?
- 2 How is Kalabasa cooked?
- 3 What is the origin of kalabasa?
- 4 What’s the difference between kalabasa and pumpkin?
- 5 Popular non-traditional recipes to make with Kalabasa
- 6 What pairs well well with kalabasa?
- 7 Health benefits of kalabasa
- 8 Are there any side effects of eating kalabasa?
- 9 Conclusion
What is Kalabasa?
Kalabasa is a winter squash famously grown in the Philippines, West Indies, and tropical and sub-tropical American regions.
It has a dark green color, which can become tainted with yellow when it gets too ripe. Sometimes, moderately ripe kalabasa can also have yellow markings.
Its shape resembles an ordinary pumpkin for the most part, with a rind lined with vertical ridges, and it weighs anywhere from 5 to 50 pounds.
The squash is also commonly known as “calabaza,” an umbrella term used in the Spanish language for various squashes.
However, in the Philippines, it is synonymous with only one type.
Just like many other Asian foods, the popularity of Kalabasa or “calabaza” easily transcends borders.
It is famous everywhere where Spaniards and Asians reside, from Philipines to Latin America to Spain and even some parts of Europe.
Due to its mellow, sweet-ish taste, it fits in every recipe, whether sweet or savory.
You can roast it, bake it, cook it, saute it, braise it, or even grill it. Moreover, you can also add it to stir-fries, curries, and stews.
Kalabasa has a mild, nutty, sweet flavor that resembles butternut and acorn squash. That’s also one of the reasons it’s often used as a replacement for the aforementioned in most recipes.
The culinary versatility of this squash is simply unmatched.
Additionally, it is a rich source of essential body nutrients that helps nourish your body, both from the inside and the outside.
Although Kalabasa is available in the market all year round, the freshest ones can only be found in winter, when the season is at its peak, and the demand is touching its highs.
What does kalabasa mean?
Kalabasa is a Filipino word borrowed from the Spanish word “calabaza,” which means pumpkin.
Although “Calabaza” is a generic term for any winter squash in Spanish, Kalabasa refers to a particular squash that is consistently grown and used in the Philipines.
How is Kalabasa cooked?
Given that Kalabasa is one of the most commonly grown squashes in the Philippines, they have made it into a super-versatile food.
They cook and serve it in a lot of different ways. In fact, more than half of Kalabasa recipes come from the Philippines.
You can bake it, sautee it, roast it, braise it, and even stir fry it. However, these are optional and quite casual ways to cook kalabasa.
When it comes to the signature dishes prepared with Kalabasa, it’s none other than the infamous Philipino staple, ginataang kalabasa.
It’s a stew with coconut milk, vegetables, kalabasa squash, and some mild spices.
The resulting dish is a delightful and hearty comfort meal with a mixture of sweet-spicy tastes, served best with rice.
You can also put kalabasa in your favorite puddings, pies, soups, or recipes that call for butternut or pumpkin due to the similar taste and texture.
What is the origin of kalabasa?
According to ‘Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club,’ Cucurbita moschata originates from America and has been grown in the region for around 5000-7500 years.
Archeological records suggest that Cucurbita was a primary agricultural product of ancient America and the main nutrition source of the pre-Columbian civilizations in the western hemisphere.
There was no mention of squash or Cucurbita in any cuisine around the world, until 1492, after the Spanish invasion of the Americas.
As the Spaniards moved to Europe and other regions of the world through continued conquests, they also carried Cucurbita with them.
With the progression of time, Cucurbita became quite a common food ingredient worldwide and influenced many cuisines, the North American and Philipino cuisine being at the top.
They also gave the name “Calabaza” to the squash, a collective term for all the Cucurbita Moschata, which, with little modifications, became “Kalabasa,” as per the Philipino language.
Although the squash failed to become a primary agricultural product of any region up till now, it still has a strong presence in the cuisine of every place that the Spaniards once inhabited.
The Philippines, modern Spain, Mexico, and South American countries are just a few to name.
What’s the difference between kalabasa and pumpkin?
While Kalabasa and pumpkin might look the same to an unfamiliar eye, they are very different. To make my point more elaborate, let’s have a look at their differences, one by one:
A kalabasa has a dominant dark green color, often streaked with yellow.
If it’s a more mature squash, you will often see the green color almost entirely overshadowed by the yellow.
However, you will still be able to tell the difference due to the subtle green patches.
On the other hand, a pumpkin has a clean yellow color without any hints of green. You can easily identify it when placed next to a kalabasa.
Plus, compared to the often uneven shape of kalabasa, a pumpkin has a very round shape, making it instantly identifiable when placed next to a squash.
A pumpkin has very tough skin compared to a kalabasa or any squash. This makes pumpkins very difficult to cut through.
If you haven’t cut a pumpkin, beginning your cooking journey with a kalabasa might be a good idea. After all, there isn’t much difference in taste.
As you cut open a kalabasa and a pumpkin, you will see that both have a similar texture. However, what’s different is their color.
A mature kalabasa is yellow with a tinge of orange, while a pumpkin is as orange on the inside as on the outside.
If you see any other color after slicing open any of them, it means that they are not ripe and hence, not ready to cook.
Pumpkins are harvested in summer and available for use in the winter only.
On the other hand, kalabasa is grown and available all year round, irrespective of the season.
Another great thing about kalabasa is that it is an excellent replacement for pumpkin in every recipe.
So even if you don’t have pumpkins and your recipe calls for it, you can always use a kalabasa to substitute it.
Alternatively, you can also use butternut squash to prepare your favorite recipes.
Popular non-traditional recipes to make with Kalabasa
Kalabasa is a very versatile squash. If you get your hands on one, there are a hundred different dishes you can make it into, and each time, it will taste delicious.
Following are some great, not-so-traditional recipes with kalabasa you need to try out now! The best thing about them? You can make them with both fresh and leftover squash.
Ravioli with squash filling
Ravioli can be filled with many different ingredients to give it some interesting flavors. And among those, squash has always been among the most popular.
Top it off with some grated parmesan cheese, and nothing tastes more delicious.
Kalabasa, pork, and onion bake
Well, kalabasa, or squashes generally, are used best as side dishes due to their low protein profile.
However, when baked with pork chops, red onions, and thyme chops, you will have one of the most nutritious, delicious, and aromatic meals. You ought to try it once.
Nothing feels better than a hearty soup on a cold winter night. If you have leftover kalabasa, combine it with some vegetable broth, onions, and a bunch of spices, and voila!
You have a delicious vegetarian soup to enjoy. The best thing? You can make it with any squash, whether kalabasa or not.
Risotto is an Italian staple enjoyed all year round with any seasonal ingredients you can get your hands on, with squashes being no exception.
Just steam some kalabasa, stir it in the rice, and garnish it with some leaves. It might just become one of your favorite comfort foods.
Have you ever tried a ginataang kalabasa? If yes, you might have yet to try a ginataang with mashed kalabasa.
We can tell you beforehand that it can do magic to the delicious dish.
Next time you make ginataang at home, make some extra effort and mash the squash instead of cutting it in chunks. You will love how defined the flavors can become.
Everything tastes better with a thick and flavorful dip.
Enhance the taste of your favorite deep-fried pork, seafood, crackers, and snack with sweet mashed squash on the side.
What pairs well well with kalabasa?
It really comes down to the season, as well as how you cook kalabasa.
Generally, kalabasa is considered a great pairing with more proteinaceous dishes due to its generally low protein profile and linear taste.
The bold flavor of protein dishes not only refines the overall taste of the squash but also provides you with the much-needed protein to fulfill your body’s requirements.
Some of the most commonly paired dishes with kalabasa (inside and outside the Philipines) include spicy chicken roast, beef kebabs, lamb curries, deep-fried lamb, and seafood.
Kalabasa is often served as a dip in most of these dishes.
Health benefits of kalabasa
Besides the fact that kalabasa is revered for its versatility like any other squash, it is also loved for its amazing health benefits.
It is rich in all the essential vitamins and minerals to nourish your body inside and outside.
Following are some of the significant benefits associated with eating kalabasa regularly:
Kalabasa is a rich carotenoid source, including beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.
Research shows that the combined effect of these carotenoids can significantly lower the chances of age-related health issues.
Those include macular degeneration (an eye disease that blurs your central vision), neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular diseases.
Moreover, they also help to strengthen your immune system against different conditions.
May help in digestion and the prevention of diabetes
Kalabasa has a very low glycemic index, which is essential for maintaining blood sugar levels.
However, what’s important is the ample amount of fiber found in the squash, which also includes pectin.
Pectin helps the body in digestion.
It becomes a gel-like substance when it comes in contact with water, helping soften the stool and making it pass through the digestive tract relatively quicker.
Apart from that, pectin also helps regulate the insulin-sugar levels in the body.
A lab study on rats confirmed that high pectin in the body helps increase the body’s tolerance towards diseases related to increased sugar, such as type-II diabetes.
May improve vision
Do you know that a single squash contains more than 400% of your daily vitamin A requirement? It might be hard to believe, but it’s true.
As mentioned, squashes are extremely rich in carotenoids, including beta-carotenoids.
Beta-carotenoid is a type of carotenoid that the body splits and converts to vitamin A, which is imperative for maintaining your vision.
By eating kalabasa, you get both direct and indirect vitamin- A, ensuring your eyes are safe from any diseases in the future.
May help in weight loss
A cup of kalabasa contains about 36 calories, 7 grams of carbs, and less than 1 gram fat.
This makes it almost fat-free and can help you a lot if you are on a vegetarian diet and looking for something delicious and healthy.
The few calories a kalabasa has are also derived from the little carbohydrates found within.
May help prevent cancer
The carotenoids found in a kalabasa, besides aiding digestion and keeping you from diabetes, also have anti-oxidant effects on the body.
It protects you from any toxins that could contribute to the development of cancer cells in the body.
Squashes also have reasonable amounts of vitamin c, which plays a massive role in preventing premature aging and replication of cancer cells within the body.
Plus, a good amount of vitamin A ensures a low chance of developing oral cavity and lung cancer.
Are there any side effects of eating kalabasa?
Generally, kalabasa is a very nutritious vegetable with no side effects on your health.
However, you should check with a doctor if you experience eye itchiness or skin rashes after cooking and eating squash.
You might be allergic to squashes and pumpkins.
Filipino cuisine is known for its unique yet simple and delicious recipes, and a good part of them is made with squashes, most specifically, kalabasa.
However, what makes it better is the versatility of kalabasa, its ability to fit every meal in a hundred different ways.
Its delicate flavor ad unique texture make it a good choice for every dish, whether it’s your favorite soup or just another stir-fry.
In this article, we tried to cover everything you need to know about kalabasa, from its very name to its medical significance and use as a common food worldwide.
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.