Washoku Explorers: Konbu, a versatile player
November 2, 2017
The king of umami
In August 2017, three culinary experts from the United States and Britain visited Toyama Prefecture to experience the diverse food culture and ingredients of the countryside and learn about the essence of washoku, Japanese cuisine.
In our previous feature, the trio visited a tofu factory in Gokayama to study a traditional method of tofu making that has been handed down for over one hundred years. This time, we will explore the fascinating world of konbu, the king of umami!
Toyama has the highest consumption of konbu per household in Japan. In the 17th century, it was a relay point on the shipping route between major konbu producers in Hokkaido and consumers in the Kansai region. Because of this, konbu plays a key role in Toyama’s food culture.
(Above left: Rausu-konbu; Right: Ma-konbu)
The explorers visited a specialty store that sells various types of konbu. Did you know that there are four main types of konbu used for making dashi? Understand the distinct features of each and become a konbu master!
- ◆ Ma-konbu: A high-end product for making a delicately sweet and clear dashi. Relatively thick, it can also be simmered in sugar and soy sauce to make a savory rice topping called tsukudani.
- ◆ Rausu-konbu: Produces a fragrant and rich dashi that is slightly yellow in color.
- ◆ Rishiri-konbu: Produces a clear and fragrant dashi. Slightly harder than ma-konbu, it is commonly used in kaiseki, traditional multi-course Japanese cuisine.
- ◆ Hidaka-konbu: Soft and easy to cook, not only does it produce an excellent dashi, but it is also a delicious food in its own right.
The trio remarked that although they were familiar with making dashi from konbu, they had no idea that there were so many different varieties of konbu and ways in which it is used. After their hands-on experience at the konbu store, every time they encountered a konbu dish, they asked what type of konbu it was. Their enthusiasm and interest is a reflection of why they’re such good chefs.
Toyama Prefecture also boasts a major konbu processing industry. One of its key products is tororo-konbu. Layers of konbu are compressed and then shaved. The shreds are only 0.02 millimeters thick. Rich in flavor, it is eaten with rice or added to miso soup. Our trio were amazed by their first encounter with tororo-konbu. Susan, the food writer, exclaimed that the paper-thin shavings reminded her of a beautiful scarf. Chef Naomi fell in love with its rich umami flavor and said that she could eat it every day. Their response was eye opening to the Japanese crew who grew up eating konbu. Thanks to the explorers, I also rediscovered konbu’s appeal!
Any mention of Toyama konbu should include kobu-jime! Kobu-jime actually refers to a method of sandwiching sashimi between layers of konbu. The konbu draws out moisture from the fish and infuses it with umami, helping to preserve it, as well as enhancing its flavor and texture. Kobu-jime works particularly well with delicate flavored whitefish such as hirame flounder and sea bream. It can be eaten as is, but is also used widely in sushi. Chef Erik used the kobu-jime technique to prepare chicken, resulting in a truly innovative dish.
Next time, the three washoku explorers will collaborate to create an exquisite soup using local Toyama seafood!
Text: Ayaka Miyamoto
Ikuji Naka-ku 339-5, Kurobe-shi, Toyama Prefecture, Japan
Naomi is the owner/chef of a restaurant in Portland, a US city with a reputation for good food. She's known for her innovative use of local ingredients.
A chef at one of the best seafood restaurants in New York, Erik is in charge of researching and developing new menu items.
A food writer based in both London and California, Susan also cooks for her own take-out meals business.