Yokohama Squash

Enjoy the buttery-rich flavor and floral fragrance of this rare heirloom, Yokohama squash.

| February/March 2005

Imagine my surprise when I went into the garden this past August, and I found it littered with oddly shaped squash that resembled large chunks of hardened lava. Gray-black, other-worldly, yet hauntingly beautiful, this unique heirloom vegetable from Japan, the ‘Yokohama’ squash, was a visual study in the Japanese affection for serenity through form and texture.

Not only that, the ‘Yokohama’ possesses one of the most complex flavors I have run across in any squash or pumpkin I have grown. Everyone’s taste buds are different, but I detect hints of Asian pear, mango, avocado, lemon balsam, and if you have experience with tropical fruits, the unmistakable aroma of sapote. Can this be a squash? It is even a great boon to gardeners because it is highly resistant to borers and powdery mildew. Why didn’t I know about ‘Yokohama’ squash years ago?

This vegetable also comes with a historical pedigree hard to beat. In 1858, Japan signed treaties that opened settlement in Yokohama to foreigners, especially those who came to engage in commerce. According to Japanese food historian Shunro Kusama, Yokohama was the first place in Japan to experience the influence of Western food culture, especially after the establishment of Western-style hotels and restaurants during the 1860's. But Westerners also found evidence of much earlier outside contacts, not the least being tempura (batter-fried vegetables), a cooking technique taught to the Japanese by the Portuguese. The lingering Portuguese influence could also be seen in a number of vegetables introduced into the Japanese diet, including peppers, tomatoes and the famed ‘Yokohama’ squash.

The genetic origin of the squash traces to Central America, but over the centuries it underwent further development at the hands of Japanese gardeners. Today, several Yokohama-type squashes are known by distinctive local names in Japan. From a horticultural standpoint, it might be more accurate to say there is a Yokohama “group,” since the number of closely related varieties are many, and a few of them, like ‘Chirimen,’ are thought to be direct descendants of the same type of squash sent to the United States in 1862.

At the time of its reintroduction to the Americas, the ‘Yokohama’ squash caused a sensation, so its story is relatively well documented. While the United States was preoccupied with the Civil War at home, the big news from abroad was the new political opening of Japan, and American growers were quick to see the financial rewards of dipping into Japan’s rich botanical heritage.

The ‘Yokohama’ squash was introduced to American growers by James Hogg, a wealthy horticulturist who lived in the Yorkville section of New York City. Hogg’s brother was visiting Yokohama on business and sent him a number of unusual Japanese seeds. Hogg grew the plants in 1863, and The Magazine of Horticulture reported the results in March 1864, complete with detailed drawings of the mature fruit. Hogg named the squash in honor of its city of origin and declared it to be much superior to the ‘Hubbard,’ an heirloom squash still well known today. Hogg’s opinion may have been based on a number of factors, not the least being the extraordinary floral fragrance of the ‘Yokohama.’ But additionally, due to its smaller size, it is easier to store, and unlike the ‘Hubbard,’ it does not turn dry and pithy after prolonged storage. In fact, the flesh of the ‘Yokohama’ will remain velvety and moist for more than a year.

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