A calabaza, also called West Indian pumpkin, is a type of squash or gourd popular in Caribbean and Central and South American cuisine. There are many different varieties of calabaza, all members of the Cucurbita genus. The squash is similar to a pumpkin, usually with sweet, firm, and bright orange or yellow flesh. The outside of the squash may be green, tan, red, orange, yellow, blue, or multi-colored, and the size of the fruit also varies widely. Calabaza is often sold in pre-cut pieces rather than whole, as it can be difficult to cut through the tough rind.
Calabaza was one of the staples of the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican diet, along with maize or corn and climbing beans, collectively known as the "three sisters." The plants were all grown together in a technique called companion planting, as they contributed to each others growth. The climbing beans could grow around the stalks of maize, while providing nitrogen to the soil and shade to prevent weeds. The squash helped the soil retain moisture, and its prickly stems deterred pests. In addition, the three plants offer a balanced diet.
Calabazaa are a very versatile food plant. In addition to the flesh of the squash, the squash blossoms and seeds, or pepitas, are also eaten. The flesh of the calabaza can be roasted and eaten alone, or used in savory stews, as a thickener for sauces, or in desserts such as cakes, pies, and candies. The seeds are shelled and roasted, often after marinating or salting, and eaten as a nutritious snack. Calabaza can also be used in recipes calling for pumpkin, butternut squash, and similar squashes.
When choosing a whole calabaza, look for one that is heavy and has the stem attached. Do not buy one with soft or dark spots. The rind is heavy and can be hard to cut, often requiring a heavy knife or cleaver. One method for opening it involves removing the stem, then placing a knife blade along the length of the fruit and tapping it gently with a hammer until it opens. Remove the seeds and peel the squash before preparing it.
The fruit of the calabaza is rich in vitamin A, beta carotene, riboflavin, thiamine, and calcium, while the blossoms are rich in calcium, phosphorus, and iron. The plant also has traditional medicinal uses. The seeds are believed to help prevent kidney stones, get rid of intestinal parasites, and promote prostate health, while the flowers and leaves are used against jaundice and stomach inflammation. Some Native American groups also traditionally used the seeds to prevent bed wetting in children.