While yakumi are considered an integral part of Japanese cuisine, many of the herbs and spices were originally introduced for their medicinal properties. In fact, the word yakumi is written with the Chinese characters for “medicine” and “taste.”
Items such as ginger, turmeric and star anise have long been used in traditional East Asian medicine. Ginger was believed to have a warming effect on the internal organs, so it was used in combination with foods considered to be cooling, such as crab or chilled tofu.
Grated daikon is thought to promote digestion, especially when eating deep-fried foods such as tempura. Wasabi is prized for its antibiotic properties, a vital consideration with sashimi and other uncooked foods.
Not all yakumi are from the vegetable kingdom. Tiny dried shrimp known as sakura ebi give dishes a burst of red-orange color and an extra crunch of texture.
Shaved fish flakes (Kezuribushi) are often used to add an umami accent to simple cooked vegetable recipes, such as ohitashi. And when sprinkled over hot foods, such as agedashi-dofu (deep-fried tofu in a clear sauce), the paper-thin flakes almost seem to dance.
Adding flavor, texture, color and a dash of visual magic, yakumi are intended to enhance rather than dominate. They prime the appetite, pique the taste buds and elevate the appearance of the dishes they accompany. Working their subtle magic, they are an essential element in Japanese cuisine.