Pumpkins were an important foodstuff long before they were better loved as decorations, but plenty of people still eat them too, in far more diverse forms than pie. The term “pumpkin” can be pretty flexible–in America, we associate it with the spherical orange specimens carved up around Halloween, but in the UK and elsewhere, it’s often used to refer to winter squashes like butternut. And in fact, from acorn squash to sugar pumpkins, they’re all closely related–and all are cooked in various places around the world.
Technically, pumpkins are simply a type of squash; they belong to the cucurbitaceae or gourd family, with different types belonging to various species under that larger umbrella. Hubbard squashes, kabocha squashes, and turban squashes, for example, plus some larger pumpkins, are classed as Cucurbita maxima, while other pumpkins, including smaller pie varieties, as well as acorn squash, delicata squash, and zucchini, fall under the Cucurbita pepo label. Butternut squash is a Cucurbita moschata member, and those are all the most important edible examples. The more helpful way to distinguish them may be by comparing summer squash and winter squash; the so-called summer varieties are usually smaller, softer, milder in flavor, and either green or yellow, while the winter squashes (including pumpkins of all stripes) are generally larger, harder, sweeter, and some shade of orange or red (at least inside, and often without as well).
So when it comes to the festive fall pumpkins and squashes that show up in force as summer ends, it makes sense to lump them together in the kitchen, more or less. Taking “pumpkin” to mean all sorts of winter squash, then, let’s take a look at how it’s eaten across the globe. We couldn’t cover everything (like the German cream of pumpkin soup called Kurbiscremesuppe that’s similar to a lot of our favorite butternut squash soups, for instance, or Italy’s pumpkin gnocchi), but here’s an annotated A to Z of some lesser-known–but equally delicious–preparations for pumpkin.
There are various ways to make (and spell) this Afghan appetizer, but tender pumpkin and garlic yogurt are constants. Sometimes the pumpkin is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar before being baked, but here it’s simmered in a richly spiced tomato sauce before being topped with the cooling yogurt and fresh mint. Use small sugar pumpkins if you can find them, or butternut squash if not. Get the recipe.
This showstopping Argentinian beef stew with corn, peppers, and dried apricots is cooked and served inside a pumpkin. Scrape some of the tender orange flesh up with each serving of stew. Get the recipe.
Pumpkins naturally lend themselves to stuffing with all sorts of things–in Armenia, it’s often rice studded with dried fruit and nuts and sweetened with honey. The resulting dish is sliced so that it falls open like a flower, and is traditionally served around Christmas. You can use a larger sugar pumpkin for this, and bake it in your oven if that’s easiest, but a campfire works too. Get the recipe.
In Brazil, you might find chicken stew in a pumpkin shell, but seafood seems a bit more remarkable. In this traditional dish, soft cheese is spread inside a pumpkin before fresh tomatoes, garlic, onions, and shrimp are added and stewed. It makes an unusually delicious fall centerpiece, with lots of rice to soak up all the juices. Get the recipe.
Brazil has sweet ways with pumpkin too; doce de abobora is a jammy pumpkin compote of sorts, which can be as simple as pumpkin and sugar cooked down on the stove, but you can also add coconut and warm spices like cinnamon and cloves. Try it with fresh white cheese, requeijao if you can find it (which happens to be the same cheese traditionally used in the shrimp stew above). Get the recipe.
Just as pumpkins symbolize fall and harvest time in the U.S., they’re linked to the mid-autumn festival in China and are eaten in various forms. Fried sweet cakes made from steamed pumpkin and glutinous rice flour are traditionally filled with red bean paste, but you could also try them with brown sugar centers. Get the recipe.
For a savory Chinese take on pumpkin, this delicate steamed cake combines it with dried shrimp, minced chicken (you can also use pork), shiitake mushrooms, and preserved turnips. Get the recipe.
Egypt’s version of pumpkin pie has plenty of cinnamon and sugar, but there its similarities to our classic Thanksgiving dessert end. It’s crustless, the gently cooked pumpkin is left in chunks with a layer of nuts and raisins in the middle, and it’s topped off with a creamy bechamel. Get the recipe.
In India, pumpkin may be made into soup or stewed with savory spices, but it can also be served for dessert. Frying almonds, cashews, and pistachios in ghee before adding shredded pumpkin, milk, sugar, and khoya (or evaporated milk solids, which you can make at home) before cooking it down results in a tender yet toothsome sweet. Get the recipe.
Simply seasoned with dashi, soy, and sake, kabocha squash’s natural earthy sweetness shines through, but fresh julienned ginger makes an eye-opening counterpoint to this understated and refined Japanese dish. Get the recipe.
This sweet pumpkin (or kabocha squash) porridge is dotted with delightfully chewy rice cake balls to complement and contrast the velvety texture surrounding them. Serve it for breakfast or dessert, or as a get-well bowl of comfort. Get the recipe.
Pumpkins are native to Mexico, and one of the most popular ways to cook them (aside from empanadas), is to steam or simmer them until tender and drizzle in a cinnamon and piloncillo syrup and sweetened condensed milk. These are popular for Day of the Dead, which happens to fall in prime pumpkin time (aka autumn). Get the recipe.
There are plenty of pumpkin pancake examples, like the Sephardic Jewish versions, sometimes sweet (bimuelos de kalavasa), and sometimes savory (kibbet yakteen). “Russian pancakes” may make you think of blini, but oladyi are fluffy little griddle cakes made with kefir (or buttermilk), and they take well to moist pumpkin puree in the batter too. Get the recipe.
These South African pumpkin fritters pack in all the familiar flavors of fall, thanks to cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and sugar–and a drizzle of caramel sauce on top. Get the recipe.
This is a simple but impressive dessert from Thailand, in which a coconut milk and palm sugar custard is poured into a kabocha squash and steamed before the whole thing is cut open to reveal the sweet interior. You can make it in small sugar pumpkins too. Get the recipe.
Pumpkin soup doesn’t have to be creamy and rich; here, chunks of pumpkin (or kabocha squash) are simmered with pork in a spicy broth for something a little lighter, but just as warming for the colder months. Get the recipe.
Pumpkin is eaten in many African countries, in various different ways (even the leaves are eaten, as in ugu soup), but try pureeing butternut squash–or even sugar pumpkin–with peanut butter for an intriguing alternative to mashed potatoes. Get the recipes.
Related Video: How to Make Smoky Pumpkin Hummus
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.