Pumpkin, sweetie, cutie-pie 호박

Did you eat your share of pumpkin pie and pumpkin spice latte last fall? 🥧🎃☕️ If it’s not pumpkins, what in your opinion is a better symbol for fall?*

In Korea, however, pumpkins are available all year round, regardless of the meteorological time!

So this post is dedicated to Korea’s sweet pumpkin [literally!] and other lovely pumpkins.** 🧡🎃🧡

Botanically, pumpkins belong to the plant genus Cucurbita, which encompasses diverse members referred to as pumpkin, squash or gourd. There is an innumerable amount of pumpkin cultivars all over the world. Korean culture and history feature a diversity of pumpkins, and at present, a handful of those are common and widely consumed. The word for “pumpkin” in Korean is hobak 호박. On local food markets, you can see pumpkins that seriously have names such as “sweet pumpkin”, “young pumpkin” and “old pumpkin”!

Let’s discover why they are called like this and how they are used in contemporary Korean cuisine!

The sweet pumpkin Danhobak 단호박

Did you know there exists such a thing as sweet pumpkin? 🍭🎃

By that I am not referring to something like pumpkin pie, although it does point in the direction I am heading… 🥧 But first things first! There exists a type of pumpkin in Korea that is called danhobak (단호박), which translates to “sweet pumpkin”: Dan 단 is derived from the adjective 달다 “to be sweet” and hobak 호박 means “pumpkin”.

The Korean danhobak is closely related to the Hokkaido pumpkin (or Hokkaido squash), which was introduced to Western supermarkets earlier and may be familiar to you already. In English, it is sometimes called “green Hokkaido” or “kabocha“, the latter being merely the Japanese word for “pumpkin” (カボチャ / 南瓜). In English speaking cultures, this kind of pumpkin is considered a member of the winter squash family. Both Hokkaido and danhobak are cultivars of the species Cucurbita maxima.

In accordance with its Korean name, danhobak tastes slightly sweet. 🍬 Another characteristic is that the bright, yellow-orange flesh is somewhat dry and dense when cooked. 🟡🟠 Some cultivars have a dry and crumbly texture like roasted chestnuts or certain sweet potatoes! 🌰🍠 In contrast to many other pumpkins, which have a leathery and hard skin, danhobak possesses a dark green skin which is soft and edible. 🟢⚫ Depending on personal preference (or visual presentation), the skin of danhobak is either eaten or discarded before consumption.

Mini Danhobak 미니단호박 / chestnut pumpkin 밤호박 at a traditional market. Seoul, August 2019.

There are also various sizes of danhobak in Korea. In general, they are relatively small, with the largest ones not exceeding the size of a volley ball. 🏐 Then, there are also tiny cultivars, which are called “chestnut pumpkin” (bam hobak 밤호박) or “mini danhobak” (mini danhobak 미니단호박) and are about the size of a baseball. ⚾ In short, danhobak is a kind of small pumpkin with green skin and sweet, yellowish flesh.

In Korean cuisine, this variety of pumpkin is typically used for sweet pumpkin porridge: Danhobak-juk (단호박죽) or simply Hobak-juk (호박죽) is a thick, normally plant-based soup consisting primarily of pumpkin and rice. 🥣 Often sugar – very rarely honey – is added to enhance the sweet taste. 🍯🐝 Consequently, this porridge is one of the few Korean main dishes that are sweet by default. 🍭

Danhobak is also used in traditional Korean foods that are served as savory dishes. Steamed pumpkin may be served with soy sauce or even filled with braised nuts, beans or other seeds as a side dish (호박찜). Rice may also be decorated with pieces of pumpkin, which makes it more nutritious and appealing to the eye. 🍚 Sometimes, you can even find danhobak stuffed with eggs (단호박계란찜) or cooked rice (e.g. Yakbap 약밥). Such combinations of sweet and salty flavors is a common phenomenon of contemporary Korean food culture, the concept being termed danjjan (단짠).

Pumpkin-flavored Tteok 떡. Toppings: chestnuts, beans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, black sesame and strips of pumpkin.

Perhaps most prominent is the use of danhobak in desserts, which are constantly evolving: Similar to sweet potato 🍠, sweet pumpkin serves as a natural colorant and flavorful ingredient in bakery products, beverages and other sweet treats! 🧡 [Danhobak’s power of coloring food will be treated in a separate post.]

Besides rice cakes (tteok 떡), which are Korea’s traditional dessert 🍡, a diversity of modern breads, cakes as well as tartes can be colored orange with danhobak. 🍞🍰🥧 Although less frequent, other desserts that may feature pumpkin are bingsu (빙수) and ice cream. 🍧🍦

Apart from that, pumpkin-flavored milk as well as hobak sikhye (호박식혜), a variation of the traditional fermented rice drink, are best examples for sweet drinks featuring danhobak. Warm as well as cold sweet pumpkin latte (danhobak ratte 단호박라떼) has been a classic drink in modern coffee shops in Korea for at least a decade! ☕️

Last but not least, there is pumpkin salad! 🥗 In contemporary South Korea, there are two types of pumpkin salad [but I bet none is like what you would image]: First, there is a “savory” pumpkin salad that is made of mashed pumpkin and seasoned with mayonnaise (not vegan). [In the same fashion as Korean potato salad and sweet potato salad, which were introduced in previous posts.] Although not completely savory, this kind of pumpkin salad is served as a side dish in Korean meals, as the filling of certain sandwiches or as a topping on green salad. 🥣🥪🥗 Then, there is yet another sweet pumpkin salad, which you can encounter at the dessert or salad section of buffets. The latter pumpkin salad consists of sweetened, pureed pumpkin, topped with sweet red bean paste (pat 팥) and occasionally garnished with an extra layer of whipped cream! Sweet pumpkin mousse with sweet toppings! 🧁

The old pumpkin Neulgeun-hobak 늙은호박

The name neulgeun hobak (늙은호박) translates to “old pumpkin” or “aged pumpkin”, but it technically refers to a pumpkin in its ripe stage. Fully grown and large, the skin is leathery and too tough to eat, so it is discarded before consumption. The seeds are fully developed and therefore have a hard exterior, but the insides are technically edible if shelled. The seeds and flesh of mature pumpkins are processed separately from each other.

There are a couple of cultivars that are marketed as “old pumpkin”. The most common one in Korea is maetdol hobak (맺돌호박), which has a round and flat shape resembling that of a millstone (maetdol 맺돌). 🔘 Other varieties are long and elliptic and may appear like a gigantic squash. An example for such an elongate, orange pumpkin cultivar is dongi hobak (동이호박), which is also called Joseon hobak (조선호박). These kinds of pumpkin are typically beige or light orange outside and bright orange inside. 🟠 But there are other cultivars as well as crossbreeds.

The flesh of mature pumpkins is used mostly in savory dishes, e.g. a less sweet version of pumpkin porridge, soup or Korean pancakes which are served with soy sauce. 🥣🥞 The orange flesh is also used to make hobak jeup (호박즙), so-called “pumpkin juice”, which is actually an extract of heated pumpkins and advertised as health food. 🧃 The skin of ripe pumpkins is usually discarded, while the seeds may be shelled and used elsewhere.

The baby pumpkin Aehobak 애호박

Unripe pumpkins and ripe pumpkins at a market. Seoul, September 2020.

As the counterpart to “old pumpkin”, there exists “baby pumpkin” or “young pumpkin”: Aehobak (애호박), also known as eorin-hobak (어린호박) and jeolmeun-hobak (젊은호박). Another alternative name is put-hobak (풋호박) which means “green pumpkin”.

It is basically any pumpkin in its young stage, i.e. the green, unripe fruit! Not only is it much smaller than the mature pumpkin would be, it has a green color, and both skin and seeds are still soft.

The shape of aehobak varies by cultivar and can be round, egg-shaped or elongate. The most prevalent cultivar has a shape like that of a zucchini or a straight-necked summer squash. 🥒 However, Korean aehobak belongs to the species of Cucurbita moschata [another member of this group is the butternut squash!], while zucchini is a cultivar of Cucurbita pepo.

In English, it is actually referred to as “Korean courgette”, because of its resemblance to courgettes, aka zucchini.*** However, there are certain differences in appearance as well as taste and texture! The Korean courgette, aehobak, has a patterned skin with light green color, while the flesh inside is yellow (also after cooking). 🟢🟡 The flesh is denser than a zucchini and has a subtle sweetness, while lacking the subtle bitterness that can be perceived in zucchini. As of recent, zucchini has become available in South Korea, but many Koreans are still unfamiliar with this vegetable. Korean courgette, on the other hand, is hard to find in Europe or North America and is therefore often replaced with zucchini in Korean food recipes. Just by the looks of the courgette, it is possible to identify whether a food photo was taken in or outside Korea! 🔍👀

Even the straight-necked type of aehobak is distinguished by how it is cultivated. While the natural method is self-explanatory, for the “incubator method” the small fruit is put into a tube of plastic foil, in which the fruit is protected from insects, scratches and other harmful exterior factors. On top of that, inkyu aehobak (인큐애호박; for “incubator aehobak“) grows in a straight and homogeneous shape, matching that of the surrounding foil. Thus, all inkyu aehobak are almost identical in terms of size, length and diameter, which makes them optimal for stacking and transport! Naturally grown aehobak, on the other hand, develop individual shapes with a slight curve, may have a few blemishes, and the thickness varies depending on the part of the fruit.

Young Joseon hobak 조선호박

In its young stage, the Korean cultivar dongi hobak or Joseon hobak has a particular egg-like shape and speckled pattern. It is less common in Seoul, but when it is on sale, it is usually marketed under its individual name to distinguish it from the regular aehobak.

Aehobak is a very popular vegetable in contemporary Korean cuisine, so much so that just the word “hobak” (호박; pumpkin) can be equivalent with aehobak in certain contexts. Since skin and seeds have not hardened yet, the immature pumpkin is consumed with skin, seeds and flesh. It’s generally enjoyed like zucchini or courgettes in other cuisines. In Korea, there exists a simple side dish featuring slices of young pumpkin (호박볶음 / 호박나물) pan-fried with onions, chili peppers and occasionally mushrooms or more vegetables. 🥗 Another classic is (ae)hobak-jeon ([애]호박전), a kind of savory Korean pancake which is either made with round slices or fine strips of aehobak mixed into batter. 🥞 Furthermore, aehobak is added into stir-fries, stews, soups and more. 🍲🥣🍜

Pumpkin seeds 호박씨

Shelled pumpkin seeds.

Apart from the fruit’s flesh, the seeds and even the flowers of pumpkins are edible! However, consuming pumpkin flowers is not common in Korea and seems to originate from Western influences. 🏵 The seeds do appear in contemporary Korean cuisine and they are valued for both nutritional content as well as looks!

Peeled and raw pumpkin seeds are traded separately from the pumpkin fruit: You can find hobak ssi (호박씨 / hobak ssi-at 호박씨앗) in the nuts and seeds section of supermarkets, not necessarily near the fresh vegetable itself. Stores or vendors selling dry goods or medicinal ingredients will also offer pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin seeds are used in small amounts and mainly for garnishing. [Presumably because peeling pumpkin seeds by hand is quite an effort. 👌] The green seeds help setting colorful accents on dishes, while increasing their value. 💚 In traditional Korean cooking, for instance, they appear as an ingredient in some rice cakes (떡), elegant confectionery such as Gaeseong yakgwa (개성약과), so-called medicinal rice (yakbap 약밥) as well as a topping on [more noble variants of] Korean porridge.

Modern dishes may also feature pumpkin seeds and are in that regard similar to Western dishes, e.g. salad, yogurt bowls, cakes and other desserts.

Pumpkin leaves 호박잎

Last but not LEAF [sorry, for the bad pun!], Koreans even eat the greens of pumpkins! ☘️☘️☘️

Pumpkin leaves are categorized as vegetables and their Korean name is hobangnip (호박잎). ☘️ Also the soft green tips of pumpkin vines are edible and referred to as hobaksun (호박순). 🌱 In late spring and summer, when pumpkin plants are growing vividly, young leaves are sold or simply given away.

If you have ever had the chance to touch a pumpkin plant in person, you will know that the leaves are covered with white, spiky hairs. 🌵🤏 [Not necessarily painful, but it can be unpleasantly rough on the skin or tongue.] To make the leaves and young stems more palatable, they have to be heated, upon which they soften. ♨️

Koreans like to briefly steam the leaves and enjoy them by wrapping e.g. cooked rice into them, as in hobangnip ssambap (호박잎쌈밥). 🍚 Alternatively, the raw greens can be chopped up and added into stews or soups just like many other vegetable greens. A classic dish that is great with pumpkin leaves is Doenjang guk (호박잎 된장국), a hearty soup seasoned with Korean soy bean paste. 🍲

Closing the circle and wrapping things up

You don’t have to wait for Halloween or Thanksgiving to come around to enjoy pumpkin! 🍁🍂🦇 In contemporary South Korea, it’s almost always pumpkin season! Pumpkins are timeless! When fresh pumpkin is not available, Korea offers danhobak powder, frozen puree, slices of dried ripe pumpkin as well as unripe aehobak. In addition to that, today’s greenhouse agriculture allows harvesting aehobak, which is originally a fruit of summer, also during the rest of the year. [Prices are considerably higher out of season, though.] 🥒 The “old pumpkin” is a familiar sight during Korean winter, but with the right know-how, it is possible to store a mature pumpkin for several months in its fresh stage! 🎃

While danhobak is the most prevalent pumpkin in South Korea today, there are a number of other pumpkin varieties! Overall, they are adorable and – sometimes literally – sweet fruits!

And pumpkins can be enjoyed in maaaaaany more ways than as pumpkin spice latte and pumpkin pie! Similar to sweet potatoes, sweet pumpkin is featured in various dessert-like products and also beverages. 🍰🧁🍦🥤 Does this remind you of something???

First, sweet tomatoes. 🍅
Then sweetened potatoes and sweet potatoes. 🥔🍠
Followed by sweet corn and non-sweet-corn. 🌽
Now, sweet pumpkin. 🎃

What’s gonna be next?!

Maybe sweet beans….? But that may be old news to some of you already… 😉****

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Additional notes

*) Particularly in North America, the season of fall is associated with carving pumpkins and eating pumpkin-flavored food.

**) The word “pumpkin” can be used as a term of endearment (애칭) for loved ones. Example. Example 2. It can express endearment in the same way as calling someone “sweetie”, “baby” or “cutie”.

***) Zucchini / courgette is also referred to as “baby marrow” and is in fact the immature stage of the marrow.

****) Korean cuisine exhibits a couple of concepts that may challenge your worldview and definitions of vegetables and fruits, or what is sweet ingredient and what not. Very characteristic for Korean desserts are sweetened beans, such as red beans (pat 팥), which are used e.g. in sweet red bean soup (단팥죽), Korean rice cakes () and bingsu (빙수).

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