The Japanese Delicacy (VIII): Kombu
Kombu, one of the edible Japanese seaweeds, is an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. It is impossible to eat a meal at a Japanese restaurant without kombu because it endows Japanese cuisine with unique flavor, nutrients, and minerals. Kombu can be eaten as a vegetable and is also a necessary ingredient in the dashi (Japanese soup stock).
What is Kombu?
Kombu belongs to the brown-algae family. They have elongated leaves up to 80 meters and sturdy stems, usually inhabiting water 5 to 8 meters deep. They grow fast, taking about two years to reach the maturity required for harvesting. 90% of kombu comes from the Hokkaido region in northern Japan, which is rich in minerals and provides an ideal environment for high-quality kombu. It is an ideal food for vegetarians because it contains high levels of glutamic acid (the basis of MSG).
Kombu is often dried for storage and transportation. Once the kombu reaches land, it is left to dry on rocks. Some kombu also undergoes a further maturation process called kuragakoi (cellar protection). This process improves the flavor of the kelp and removes its distinctive seaweed odor. Kombu tastes mildly salty and sweet. It is widely used in Japanese cuisine as a flavor enhancer to provide umami flavor, especially in soups.
History of Kombu
In ancient Japanese, edible seaweeds were collectively called "me." The most famous theory about the origin of the name “kombu” is that it comes from the Chinese word. Kombu was originally referred to ropes made of blue thread. Because of their similarity in shape, seaweeds began to be called kombu.
The earliest records of the consumption of kombu appear in the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE). Archaeologists have found remains of Kombu at some sites, which leads to the speculation that kombu was consumed at that time. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573 CE), newly developed drying techniques extended the shelf life of kelp, making it an important export commodity for the Tohoku region. By the Edo period (1603-1867 CE), with the colonization of Hokkaido and the development of transportation, kombu became a common ingredient throughout Japan. Since the Edo period, traditional Okinawan cuisine has relied heavily on kombu. Okinawa consumed more kombu per household than any other region.
In the 20th century, a method of planting kombu was discovered, which made kombu cheap and readily available. Since the 1960s, dried kombu has been exported from Japan to many countries. Nowadays, it can be found in supermarkets and health food stores.
How to use Kombu
In Japan, kombu is mainly used for making dashi. There are four types of kombu often consumed in Japan:
Ma Kombu: Ma Kombu, also known as Yamanashi kombu, is a light brown variety with a wedge-shaped leafy body. It is commonly used in fine cooking. The dashi made from it is clear, delicate, and mildly sweet. It can also be used to make stews, salt kombu, and Tororo kombu.
Hidaka Kombu: This dark kombu is often used in everyday cooking, and often appears in miso soups, stews, Kanto toppings, and rice balls. It tastes softer and richer than other kombu after boiling.
Rishiri Kombu: It comes from the topmost island of Japan. It is often considered the best kombu for making stock. The stock made from it has no irritating taste. In addition to making soup, it is often used in the restaurant to cook vegetarian dishes, such as yudofu (boiled tofu) and kombu soup.
Rausu Kombu: Its wide and thin leaves ensure that its strong flavors can be drawn out to the dashi. It is considered to be the highest grade of ingredients and is reserved only for special occasions. Since it dissolves easily after boiling, it is often used for making hot pot soup, stock, and salt-flavored ramen noodles.