Science  /  Origin Story

How Spaghetti Squash Squiggled Its Way Onto American Tables

It took a shift in food culture for consumers to embrace the "noodle plant."

Zucchini and spaghetti squash belong to the same species, Cucurbita pepo, which originated in the Americas. Starting in the 16th century, traders carried squash and their seeds across the world. Wherever the seeds took root, farmers used selective breeding to develop varieties, with results as diverse as carving pumpkin, butternut, pattypan, and, in China’s northeastern region of Manchuria, what locals called yúchì guā. The name, “shark-fin gourd,” referred to how its stringy flesh resembled the finely-shredded shark fin used in soup.

But while real shark fin is expensive, shark fin gourd was abundant. Each plant readily produced up to 30 pounds of squash in a season, and the gourds could last off the vine for months, thanks to their hard outer shell. Manchurian farmers used rasps to scrape out the insides, consuming them sun-dried or fresh in soups and stir-fries.

After Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese government sent thousands of settlers into the region to establish farms. This new market attracted the attention of agribusiness owners, including Sakata. Seeing commercial potential in the shark fin gourd, Sakata and other seed moguls brought it back to Japan, where it became known as somen-kabocha, after somen noodles, or kinshi-uri, “gold thread melon.” Sakata himself reportedly enjoyed the squash, which in Japan was used in side dishes or, like somen, in soups both cold and hot.

The seeds soon trickled into international markets. As early as 1932, an American seed catalog, Good Luck Gardens, promoted the “new wonder vegetable.” “Down goes the cost of living!” read the ad, which touted the “squaghetti” as an economic source of pasta. (This same catalog wrongfully claimed the wonder vegetable was both Persian and “a favorite of the ancients.”)

Meanwhile, Sakata was breeding an improved commercial variety, selecting for traits that would make it more desirable to growers. “A breeder has to know the individual crop, has to be at least fairly familiar with its variability, in order to really work with its genetic variation to come up with an idea,” says Dr. Paris. It’s unclear how long it took Sakata to develop his unique spaghetti squash. Paris suggests three years as the minimum amount of time needed to develop a new squash variety. Paris’s own spaghetti squash, the Orangetti, was developed in six years.