From the tremendous variety of winter squashes available in Germany today – some growers offer several dozen different types – one would never guess that winter squash was virtually absent from the food scene when I left Germany 15 years ago. With the exception of pickled pumpkin as an accompaniment to bratwurst, a specialty from Berlin that I included in my book, traditional German cookbooks contain no winter squash dishes.
Most people I know, including myself, did not particularly care for winter squash because it usually meant large, rather watery pumpkins grown by home gardeners and better candidates for a giant pumpkin growing competition than for cooking (German language does not distinguish between winter squash and pumpkin, either one is called Kürbis).
A small bright orange winter squash from Japan changed all that. Its story is yet another fascinating tidbit of world history through the food angle. In 1853 the United States Navy landed in Tokyo demanding that Japan open its doors to trade. This rattling of the sable achieved its goals: the following year a treaty was signed that opened two Japanese ports for trade, and in 1858 another treaty between the US and Japan opened even more ports and allowed foreigners to reside in certain cities.
This is how in 1878 agricultural consultants from the United States brought the first winter squash, a Hubbard, to the island of Hokkaido, which until then had been a remote, sparsely populated area. Lots of breeding turned the original bland and tough-skinned Hubbard squash into a small squash with a nutty flavor and a skin so soft that no peeling is required. The Japanese named the variety Kuri aji (Kuri means chestnut in Japanese). In English is it called Red Kuri, and, in German, Hokkaido.
The Hokkaido is what kicked off the winter squash trend in Germany in the 1990s. Although in the meantime other popular American winter squash varieties have made it to Germany, including Butternut squash, Hokkaido is still the leader of the pack in Germany. And it is also coming to the United States. This fall I have seen Red Kuri squash pop up at farmers’ markets in our area. I grew Hokkaido in my garden this year as a test, and the four pretty squashes I got from one plant encourages me to grow more next year.
With the winter squashes, Halloween also emerged in Germany, and it is gaining in popularity every year. I must say have mixed feelings about it when friends tell me about kids going trick or treating (in German they ask for “Süßes oder Saures?“, meaning “Sweet or sour?”) in their neighborhood.
When I was little I had to actually do something to get a treat. On the evening of November 10, the day before St. Martin’s Day, my mother would take me to my grandmother’s, to sing a song in front of her door, after which she would reward us with goodies.
This old Protestant custom from North and East Germany goes back to the days when farm workers were usually dismissed for the winter on November 10. That night, they sent their children to sing in front of the doors of the wealthy to collect foods, which were then stored to survive the winter. But that’s already another story…