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  • Spencer Low

How the Portuguese introduced pumpkin to Japan

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

It was Halloween recently and pumpkins were suddenly all over the place. My son's friend Kenji, whose father is Japanese, came for a sleepover recently and dinner included homemade pumpkin soup. I'd forgotten what the Japanese word for pumpkin was and asked Kenji. He answered without thinking: かぼちゃ (kabocha, written 南瓜 in kanji). This reminded me of yet another clear trace of the Portuguese influence on Japan.

Many people are aware that Japanese tempura (てんぷら or 天麩羅), namely vegetables or seafood that are battered and then deep fried, is a Portuguese contribution to Japan's cuisine. The name comes from the Portuguese word tempero, meaning seasoning, and the dish is inspired by the Portuguese peixinhos da horta. Meaning "Little Fish from the Vegetable Garden", these are typically green beans that have been battered and deep fried and somehow resemble small pieces of fish (bell peppers and squash are also used). This dish was introduced to Japan in the 16th century when the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish relationships with the Japanese. In fact, this year, 2023, is the 480th anniversary of when two Portuguese explorers, António da Mota and Francisco Zeimoto, landed on the island of Tanegashima (種子島). For more details, check out this post:

The Portuguese also brought with them the vegetable cucurbita maxima, a type of winter squash (and therefore technically a fruit in botanical terms). All squashes are native to Central America, so this was part of the Columbian exchange of plants, animals, etc. between the Old and New Worlds. It appears the vegetable was brought by Portuguese sailors who arrived in Ōita (大分), a port city in Kyūshū (九州), the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, and that they had set sail from Cambodia. The Portuguese word for Cambodia is Camboja, and so the Japanese eventually called this delicious vegetable kabocha. It is unclear whether the Portuguese had started cultivating the vegetable themselves in Cambodia or elsewhere in Asia, but read this post about how the Portuguese (along with the Spanish during the Iberian Union) intervened in Cambodian affairs in the late 16th century:

Simmered kabocha (かぼちゃの煮物)

The Japanese extended the word kabocha to refer to all types of squash and pumpkin, and the dish of simmered kabocha (かぼちゃの煮物) is now considered a part of classic Japanese cuisine. Japan has regional dialects, and a major one is the Kansai (関西) dialect spoken on the west side of Japan's main island Honshū (本州), including cities such as Ōsaka (大阪) and Kyōto (京都). Interestingly, the word for pumpkin in Kansai dialect is ぼうぶら pronounced bōbura. Even after more than 400 years, Portuguese speakers can tell immediately that this is directly from the Portuguese word for squash/pumpkin: abóbora. Aside from the missing 'a' which is unstressed in Portuguese, the pronunciation is almost exact with the second unstressed 'o' turning into a 'u' sound (at least in European Portuguese, with Brazilian Portuguese being a bit different in this regard).

The Japanese borrowed many other words from the Portuguese, for more details please check out this post:

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Dec 10, 2023

Fascinating! Are you aware of this interesting study?

Roullier C et al. 2013 Historical collections reveal patterns of diffusion of sweet potato in Oceania obscured by modern plant movements and recombination.PNAS 110 (6) 2205-2210.

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