Sunday, March 21, 2010

Zapallos: Pumpkins and Squash

The gourds of the Indies are another monstrosity, both in their size and the luxuriance with which they grow, especially those that are native to the land which they call capallos, whose flesh can be eaten, especially during lent, either boiled or stewed.  José de Acosta, 1590[1]
Zapallos (Cucurbita spp.) continue to surprise foreigners as they did Spanish Jesuit and naturalist José de Acosta when he saw them in Peru in the 16th century.  Some are huge, up to 70 lbs, with vivid yellow-orange flesh inside a hard grey-green rind, and they are among the most popular Chilean vegetables, cultivated on over 5,200 hectares (20+ square miles), an area surpassed only by corn, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.[2]

The most popular is the zapallo camote [3]  (above), a variety of  the native South American Cucurbita maxima, the same species that gives us Hubbard squash, banana squash, and those giant pumpkins that appear in state fairs through out the US Midwest. 
C. maxima was domesticated in Peru and was being grown up and down the pacific coast of South America by 1500-2000 BC. In Chile evidence for agriculture dates to 4000-6000 BC, though the earliest evidence for zapallos comes from 2500-500 BC.[4]   Abbe J. Ignatius Molina (1740-1829) tells us of two types that the Mapuche of South Central Chile were cultivating at the time of conquest [5]:

Writing in the 1860s, Claudio Gay provides more detail:
zapallos are very abundant in Chile as they are very widely consumed and, like the garbanzo, are always a part of the puchero [stew, cazuela]. For this reason they cultivate a variety, the zapallo hollito, which although very green is of excellent flavor and replaces the common zapallo until it ripens.  There are also other kinds that serve for distinct uses; the alcajota which is used to make sweets; a very large gourd, with a hard shell that is used for trays [and boats (!) bateas]; others that are made into containers of various sizes for keeping seeds, powdered chili, etc., but the most notable variety is the common zapallo whose sweetness is not inferior to the sweetest sweet potatoes and like them is commonly eaten roasted in ovens or over coals. Without doubt it is the sweetest variety…  Its size, usually medium, sometimes reaches a weight of 70 pounds.[6] 

Of the varieties mentioned, only the common zapallo (pencaMapudungun), gourds, (Lagenaria sicerariaI) and the alcayote are common today.  Gourds are made into vessels for drinking maté, and the Mapuche wada (rattle musical instrument); and spaghetti-squash like alcayote (Cucurbita ficifolia, from the Náhuatl chilacayohtli) is made into a jam or marmelada


But if the zapallo hollito seems to have disappeared, it has been replaced by the ubiquitous zucchini; Chile’s zapallo Italiano (C. pepo) which was evidently taken from its native Mexico to Europe were it was developed to its present state in the 19th century and returned to the Americas in the 1920s.[7] 

 Chilean zapallo italiano and other produce


And there is also a round variety, great for stuffing.

Eating zapallos

Zapallo camote is available year round in Chile and is an essential ingredient in many of the most Chilean of Chilean dishes:  cazuela (boiled dinner), charquican (hash of beef, potatoes, zapallo, corn, etc.), porotos granados (shell beans with corn and squash), locro de zapallo (pumpkin stew), carbonada (beef soup, from meat left over from an asado, BBQ), and    ….sopaipillas.

Sopaipillas  (Recipe wWw.ElChef.T)

1 cup cooked mashed or sieved zapallo camote (or butternut squash)
3 tablespoon melted shortening
1 teaspoon salt
(1 teaspoon baking powder, optional)
2 cups flour
½ cup hot milk or water

Oil for frying (2 cups or so)

Mix ingredients and form a smooth elastic dough, adding additional flour if necessary.  Roll out to a thickness of ¼ inch and cut into 4 inch rounds.  Perforate rounds in several places with a knife or fork and fry for a minute on each side in 375° oil.  They should be golden but not very dark.

Serve with pebre  or simmered in chancaca (raw sugar) syrup

Chancaca syrup

1 lb. (500 gm) chancaca (or dark brown sugar)
2 cups water (1/2 lt.)
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) orange peel, removed with vegetable peeler and cut into fine strips

Bring all ingredients to a simmer until completely dissolved.  Add sopapillas and simmer briefly.  Serve hot.

Zapallitos italianos

 Chilean recipes for zucchini cover much the same territory as in other parts of the Americas:  steamed, sautéed, stewed with tomatoes and onions, fried, stuffed, and so on. But my wife’s favorite is a little unusual:

Budín de zapallo italiano (zucchini pudding)

2-3 medium zucchini
1 medium onion, minced
1 marqueta (Chilean French roll or 2 slices home-style bread)
grated cheese, reserving some for topping.
2 eggs
1 tomato
salt, pepper, oregano

Cut zucchini in thick rounds and cook in boiling water until done, but al dente.  Remove and chop into pea-sized pieces.  Drain, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.  Soak bread in milk and squeeze out liquid.  Sauté onion in oil until translucent.  Mix zucchini, bread, onion and grated cheese (as much or little as you wish, reserving some for topping) add salt, pepper and oregano to taste.  Beat eggs and add to mixture.  Butter a greda de pomaire casserole (or other earthenware dish) and add mixture.  Top with grated cheese and sliced tomatoes.  Bake in 400° until bubbly and brown on top.

[1] Acosta, José de 2002 (1590) Natural and Moral History of the Indies. Jane E. Mangan, Ed. Duke University Press.  On line at
[2] Chilean Agriculture Overview, 2009. Agarian Policies and Studies Bureau, Ministerio de Agricultura.  On line at
[3] From the Quechua, zapallu and the Náhuatl (Aztec) camohtli, “sweet potato.” The indigenous Mapuche name is penca.
[4] Pearsall, Deborah M. 2008. Plant domestication and the shift to agriculture in the Andes, Chapter 7.  The Handbook of South American Archaeology. P. 112. Eds., Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell.  On line at
[5] Molina, Juan Ignacio. 1809. The Geographical, Natural and Civil History of ChileMiddletown, Conn: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme. Vol I, p. 110. On line at
[6] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo 2. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 112. On line at
[7] Decker, Deena S. 1989.  Origin(s), evolution, and systematics of Cucurbita pepo (Cucurbitaceae)  Economic Botany 43(4):423-443 On line at


  1. In my opinion your recipe of budín de zapallitos is very chilean. Love it!

  2. Thanks Pilar,

    I asked my wife for her favorite zucchini recipe, and this was it. I haven't tried it yet, but we'll have it tomorrow. I'll add a picture if it turns out good... which I'm sure it will.


  3. Hola/Howdy!
    I discovered your blog in my quest to discover brown sugar (or molasses to make brown sugar) in order to make chocolate chip cookies (yes have a coveted bag or two of chips). I was tickled to find your ethnographic twist to your blog (I have a BA in anthro from Cal State-Sacramento on my way to my Ed.D. in Special Education). We are living in Las Condes for the next couple of years (or so).

    I'd like to know more about chancaca as a possible flavor substitute for brown sugar. It apparently is Peruvian in origin. I've used panela when we lived in Colombia (La Guajira)- but haven't found that either. I do have some azucar rubia but it didn't seem flavorful enough or have sufficient moisture content to pack. Have you readily found it in the local stores - if so which ones.

    BTW- thanks for the meat article!

  4. Donna,

    I use chancaca where ever I would use molasses or brown sugar, either grated or dissolved in a little hot water. Like panela it comes in a block (I've added a photo), and is available in Jumbo, Lider, etc. And thanks, glad you like the blog.



  5. I stumbled across your blog as I was searching for info about zapallo squash for a recipe. Thanks for all the info.

  6. Hello

    Does anyone know what is the equivalent to the Chilean Zapallo Camote?...Im in the States and there is too much option but I dont know the names in English.


    1. It is not a common variety in the US but "Blue Hubbard Squash" ( is the closest. For a substitute I suggest that you use Butternut squash ( It's widely available.

      Buena suerte

    2. Butternut squash is very similar in taste. It's the one I use to make sopaipillas

  7. Came across your blog entry as I am trying to explain what zapallos look like to my US friends. Thanks for all the detail!

  8. Hi Jim, thanks for your blog! Do you know if there are spaguetti-squashs available in Chile? Alcayota is similar, but too sweet. I'm trying to find the same spaguetti squash I can find in the US. Thanks!

  9. I've never seen or heard of it in Chile--or for that matter yellow crookneck or white pattypan squash either. Quien sabe por que.

  10. Great blog......felicitaciones!
    Have lived in the Estates forever still searching for for an easy and possible way to get the real thing like "porotos granados"(fresh cranberry beans)& "zapallo camote".
    Anyone has any information about it?

  11. Unless you grow them in a garden your best chance for fresh cranberry beans (AKA borlotti beans) is a produce market in an Italian American neighborhood. Dry ones are widely available on line. Zapallo camote is a variety of Hubbard Squash (see above) which I have never seen for sale in the US. Butternut squash is a good replacement. Good luck.

  12. Hey Siegfried King, I'm late to the party, but they do sell spaghetti squash on occasion in Lider, have also seen butternut being sold. It's not common but sometimes you come across it.

    1. Rod. You had me going for a while there, but now I see that you are responding to Siegfried, from back in June. Thanks for the info.

    2. Haha! I tried to quote/tag him but apparently it's not possible.

      Yes I have had the pleasure of running into spaghetti and butternut squash in 2 Lider stores in Viña, where I currently reside, have also seen butternut in Jumbo.

      I love your blog, I've gathered a lot of nice info from here, it sucks that in Chile things tend to be so generic and people are not interested in variety and information, like all kinds of pumpkins, squashes and gourds are just "zapallos", or how hard it is to get a hold of a nice sweet potato.

      I'm surprised you stopped blogging, do you happen to have a facebook page or another medium now?


    3. Thanks for the kind words. I've stopped blogging mainly because I've run out of Chilean food topics that interest me and have some history to investigate. But I'm open to suggestions.

      And sweet potatoes--the selection is limited ("...sweet potato germplasm collected in Central Chile has very little genetic variability and may be derived from a single cultivar.*) to a red-skinned white fleshed variety that's not particularly interesting. I see it most days in my local feria libre. But the tan-skinned yellow-orange variety Peruvians use in ceveche is also around; here I find it in La Vega, the central market. Oddly, both are expensive, probably from lack of demand.


  13. Funny, I used to ask people all the time what is chancaca. They all said molasses. I wasn't so sure. But you in your recipe say to use dark brown sugar (not molasses). Thank you.


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