Making the Most of Kombu

March 2006

  • An Introduction to the Art of the 'Kombulier'

    Where does kombu grow?Kombu, or kelp, has the highest level of free-found glutamate of any foodstuff, and its umami-rich flavour is often used to make dashi or stock, which forms the basis of many Japanese dishes. Here, Mr. Takashi Okui, President of Okui Kaiseido Ltd., explains why there is more to kombu than meets the eye, with a variety of factors affecting the character of each specimen.

    Varieties of Kombu

    There are many different varieties of kombu, including rishiri, rausu, yamadashi or makombu and hidaka, with the most celebrated example being the rishiri kombu that can be found on Kafuka beach on the island of Rebun, off Hokkaido in northern Japan. The flavour of rishiri kombu stock is very delicate, while that made from rausu kombu is as aromatic as soy sauce or miso. Yamadashi and hidaka varieties, meanwhile, lie somewhere between these two extremes.

    What affects the character of kombu ?

    the quality of a certain kombu
    Kombu is graded according
    to four distinct quality levels
    To a great extent, the quality of a certain kombu is determined by the environment and geography of the area where it grows. Its classification depends on a number of factors, including the beach where it was collected, region, exposure to the sun, underwater currents and the presence of rivers or channels. Beaches are generally classified into superior beaches, premium beaches, select beaches and average beaches. As a rule, first class kombu is never found on average beaches, but only on superior beaches. In some ways, the method of classification is similar to that of wine. In France, for instance, it is mandatory under labeling regulations for the place of production to be stated on the bottle, and moreover each production centre has classifications such as grand cru, premier cru etc.

    Also in common with wine, some years' kombu is better than others, and since it takes around two years for good kombu to reach maturity, a poor harvest one year is often followed by an abundant one the next. Moreover, years do not just vary according to quantity, but also quality, with good and bad years dependent on meteorological conditions.

    Laying down kombu

    There is a method of preserving kombu known as kura-gakoi or 'cellar conservation'. This traditional practice, which dates back many years, is generally only used in the case of top quality rishiri kombu, and is similar in many ways to the 'laying down' of a fine wine. After being stored for a number of years in an environment where the humidity and temperature are strictly controlled, the rishiri kombu loses its distinctive odour, and acquires a more subtle and refined taste.

    As I mentioned above, the character of kombu can differ greatly according to its place of origin and the year in which it was harvested, and I think it is important to be aware of these variations in character when cooking with kombu. For example, kombu maki or 'rolled kombu ' need not be cooked long to become tender when made using hidaka kombu, but requires a significantly longer cooking time when made using rishiri kombu.

    the characteristics of kombu as a 'kombulier'
    Kura-gakoi or 'cellar conservation' of kombu
    What makes a 'kombulier'?

    To recap, therefore, the correct usage of a particular piece to kombu depends on two factors, namely the beach where it was harvested and its year of production. And just as we use the word sommelier to refer to an expert on wine, it is perhaps appropriate to refer to a connoisseur of the characteristics of kombu as a 'kombulier'. Why not try discovering the diversity and subtleties of kombu for yourself?

    Okui Kaiseido
    www.konbu. (Japanese Only)

  • Kombu is graded according to four distinct quality levels

    Kura-gakoi or 'cellar conservation' of kombu

  • Kombu is graded according to four distinct quality levels

    Kura-gakoi or 'cellar conservation' of kombu