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Versatile pumpkin: It's more than just squash
By Gao Ceng

PUMPKIN or nan gua is a favorite ingredient of many chefs during autumn, especially around Halloween.

In China, various kinds of orange squash are called pumpkin, some round like Halloween jack-o-lanterns, others large and long with orange flesh.

Whatever kind of pumpkin, it's rich, hearty and sweetish in taste, and can be prepared in many ways, from soups and cakes to desserts. Of course, it's filled with antioxidants and has healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine.

"Autumn is the ideal season for serving pumpkin since its pulp reaches the peak of firmness and sweetness," says Jackson Huang, executive sous chef at The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai.

Firm yet tender, pumpkin keeps its shape during cooking, though it can also be mashed, pureed or diced. It's highly versatile and the texture can vary, depending on the dish.

It can be cooked South Indian-style with butter and sugar to make kaddu ka halwa, a cake-like dessert; fried to make savory Japanese tempura that's crispy outside and tender inside; steamed and used to serve Thai-style custard; mashed to make American pumpkin pie and soup, according to Albert Thony, executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park.

The flavor of pumpkin, which is slightly sweet, goes well with various ingredients and seasonings, including meat, vegetables, fruits and milk.

"The squash adds aroma and sweetness but does not overpowers other ingredients," says chef Huang from The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai.

Pumpkin also absorbs flavors from other ingredients, so it's slightly fatty when cooked with pork, sweet and hearty when cooked with sugar.

"For me, pumpkin and meat are the golden pairing in autumn. The meat gives the squash flavor and richness while the fruity notes of the squash balance the fattiness of the meat, removing the greasy taste somewhat," chef Huang says.

Pumpkin seeds and flowers are also used in the kitchen.

Roasted pumpkin seeds are eaten as snacks in many Asian countries. They can be pressed for pumpkin seed oil, a delicacy, and used in many high-end restaurants in sauces and even topping for vanilla ice cream, says chef Thony from Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park. His favorite seasonal uses for pumpkin are as an ingredient for salad dressing, dessert and soup.

Shanghai Daily tasted four pumpkin dishes, seeing how chefs from different backgrounds present the flavor.

A-Pumpkin lasagna (98 yuan net)

Rich and creamy lasagna made from pumpkin and cheese is comfort food for the autumn that is full-bodied and complex.

Layers of noodle topped with sauce that is mainly made of tomato but also flavored with herbs and wine are alternated with pumpkin puree and thin-sliced zucchini (a kind of squash), giving each bite layers of texture, from smooth pumpkin to stringy cheese to chewy noodles.

The hearty, sweet pumpkin and rich creamy cheese make a good combination.

B-Spiced pumpkin and cranberry mille-feuille (68 yuan net)

This puff pastry is spread with pumpkin puree alternating with pumpkin mouse with a vanilla touch as well as Chantilly cream. From bottom to top it's dense, light and airy.

Dense and smooth pumpkin puree adds moisture to the slightly dry puff. The pumpkin, flavored with vanilla and nutmeg, has a distinctive sweetness with complex flavor and fragrance.

Sweet and sour Chantilly cream made from cranberries balances the rich puree.

Venue: Dome Steak and Wine, Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park

Address: B1, 158 Daduhe Rd

Tel: 2215-6696

C-Pumpkin soup (58 yuan+15%)

The soup with millet and sliced lily bulbs is inspired by Western-style pumpkin soup with a smooth, puree-like texture. But the other ingredients add a hint of Thai flavor.

The golden-colored soup has a rich aroma of fruity pumpkin and sweet coconut milk. Millet gives the soup more texture.

The chef stews the soup with pork bone, creating a distinctive taste that is savory, fruity and sweet with a refreshing note of lily bulb.

D-Braised pork ribs with pumpkin (98 yuan+15%)

Pumpkin and pork, an ideal pairing, complement each other. The pumpkin absorbs the fatty flavor and aroma from the pork and tastes rich. It also cuts through the greasy taste. Fermented black beans as seasoning add a savory taste. The chef recommends first taking a bite of the pork, followed by the pumpkin to appreciate the sweetness of the squash.

Venue: Summer Pavilion, The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai

Address: 1376 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 6279-7977

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164