Brought Together by Kombu

August 2007

Kombu growing in the sea

  • Brought Together by Kombu


    Report on the inaugural Kombu Summit held on Rebun Island, Hokkaido, Japan on 4 July 2007

    In Japan, the 'kombu road' is the name given to the ancient trading route by which the umami-rich sea vegetable kombu (kelp) was transported from Hokkaido in the north to the capital Kyoto. This unique summit revived the links between these two important culinary centres.

    The perfect time and place

    Kombu plays an extremely important role in Japanese cuisine thanks to the umami taste provided by its high levels of naturally occurring glutamate, particularly in the stock dashi, which is the basis of so many of the country's quintessential dishes. Indeed, it was the deliciousness of his kombu stock that led Professor Kikunae Ikeda to discover the umami taste in 1908. Much of the kombu used in Japan, and indeed increasingly elsewhere around the world, is harvested off the cool waters of Hokkaido, and July is the main harvesting period.

    It therefore seemed fitting that the first ever Kombu summit, bringing together kombu harvesters, wholesalers and consumers, should take place in July on the island of Rebun, where the highly prized rishiri variety of kombu is gathered, most famously on Kafuka beach.

    A source of pure glutamate

    Event chair, Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya
    Event chair, Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya
    The event was chaired by Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya of the Umami Information Center, who kicked off the seminar by giving a keynote speech on umami as the fifth basic taste that human beings recognize. In particular, she discussed recent research on the amino acid content of dashi made by top traditional Kyoto restaurants, which is relevant because glutamate is one of the amino acids; the building blocks of protein that often impart distinctive tastes to food.

    A breakdown analysis of the dashi, along with chicken stock and the Chinese stock tang, showed that all three had high levels of glutamate. What distinguished the dashi in particular, however, was the fact that apart from glutamate it contained very low levels of other amino acids, which may themselves add other tastes to a dish. This ensures that dashi is adept at drawing out the flavours of other ingredients in a dish, which is one of the most essential and intrinsic aspects of Japanese cuisine.

    A growing demand for kombu


    on the beach
    Event chair, Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya
    The panel discussion

    Ms. Ninomiya also emphasized to the group that the term umami is currently becoming more and more recognized internationally, and is attracting attention from chefs and researchers around the world. For example, there is currently a tendency in French cuisine for some chefs to reduce the amount of butter and cream they use in their cooking and for these chefs the glutamate rich kombu is becoming increasingly important as an enriching and taste-enhancing ingredient.

    The changes outlined by Ms. Ninomiya present an exciting opportunity for the kombu industry in Hokkaido, which was represented at the summit by Mr. Takashi Okui, President of Okui Kaiseido, a supplier of top quality kombu. In his keynote speech, Mr. Okui outlined the role of kombu in Japanese culinary history since the Nara period (710-784).

    He also pointed out that, just like in the case of wine grapes, the area in which kombu is harvested can have a considerable effect on its quality. (You can read more on this topic by reading Mr. Okui's article on the subject here). He emphasized that with this in mind, the kombu harvested from Kafuka beach on the island of Rebun has long been renowned for its high quality. He also expressed the importance of disseminating accurate information on kombu as one of Japan 's most traditional foods in the context
    of the increasing globalization of food.

    Kombu conversation

    For the remainder of the summit Ms. Ninomiya chaired a panel discussion. The seven strong panel included Mr. Haruji Ukai of the Japanese Culinary Academy, representing consumers of kombu, and Mr. Daisuke Kadokawa of the Kyoto City Board of Education, who both opined that it was important to educate youngsters about authentic kombu and kombu stock, both of which are essential parts of Japanese cuisine, and in turn to encourage the use of kombu in cooking. Other panelists included Mr. Okui, as well as Mr. Toru Ono, mayor of the town of Rebun; Mr. Suguru Izumi, chairman of the Kafuka Fishermen's Cooperative and Mr. Kitaro Setogawa, chairman of the Funadomari Sea Fishermen's Cooperative.

    Kombu joint declaration

    With a view to holding a second such summit, all participants affirmed their commitment to actively disseminating information on kombu to everyone in a Kombu Summit 2007 in Rebun Island Joint Declaration (Japanese below). There was a good deal of lively interaction between producers, wholesalers and consumers at the reception held after the summit.

    Here, a number of exciting ideas were explored, including the possibility of giving schoolchildren from Rebun on their annual excursion to Kyoto an opportunity to see how kombu from their island is used in traditional cooking, as well as organising kombu study tours to Rebun for representatives of Kyoto 's finest restaurants. Both of which suggest that there will be a lot more traffic on the historical 'kombu road' in the near future.


    (click to enlarge) Event participants
    Event participants

    Okui Kaiseido Ltd. (Japanese only): http://www.konbu.co.jp/
    Rebun Island (Japanese only): http://www.dosanko.co.jp/rebun/
    The Japanese Culinary Academy: http://culinary-academy.jp/eng/index.html

  • Kombu growing in the sea

    Event chair, Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya

    Mr. Takashi Okui

    Harvested kombu being dried on the beach

    The panel discussion

    A copy of the declaration

    Event participants

  • Event chair, Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya

    Mr. Takashi Okui

    Harvested kombu being dried on the beach

    The panel discussion

    A copy of the declaration

    Event participants