Washoku Explorers: Kombu, 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 kombu, the king of umami!
Toyama has the highest consumption of kombu per household in Japan. In the 17th century, it was a relay point on the shipping route between major kombu producers in Hokkaido and consumers in the Kansai region. Because of this, kombu plays a key role in Toyama’s food culture.
(Above left: Rausu-kombu; Right: Ma-kombu)
The explorers visited a specialty store that sells various types of kombu. Did you know that there are four main types of kombu used for making dashi? Understand the distinct features of each and become a kombu master!
- ◆ Ma-kombu: 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-kombu: Produces a fragrant and rich dashi that is slightly yellow in color.
- ◆ Rishiri-kombu: Produces a clear and fragrant dashi. Slightly harder than ma-kombu, it is commonly used in kaiseki, traditional multi-course Japanese cuisine.
- ◆ Hidaka-kombu: 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 kombu, they had no idea that there were so many different varieties of kombu and ways in which it is used. After their hands-on experience at the kombu store, every time they encountered a kombu dish, they asked what type of kombu it was. Their enthusiasm and interest is a reflection of why they’re such good chefs.
Toyama Prefecture also boasts a major kombu processing industry. One of its key products is tororo-kombu. Layers of kombu 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-kombu. 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 kombu. Thanks to the explorers, I also rediscovered kombu’s appeal!
Any mention of Toyama kombu should include kobu-jime! Kobu-jime actually refers to a method of sandwiching sashimi between layers of kombu. The kombu 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. His process will be revealed on the TV program.
Next time, a spinoff from the program in which the three washoku explorers collaborate to create an exquisite fish soup!
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.