The roots of “umami” — a complex taste unique to Japan and rendered from the fusion of kelp and fish flakes — is a longtime tradition in Japan. While Tokyo uses katsuo (bonito flakes), the Kansai region is better known for utilizing ururme (round herring), saba (mackerel) and meijika fish. Let’s take a journey to the production areas of Meijika and Saba, indispensable to the production of Kansai-region dashi flavors.
Can you tell us more about the traditional process of making zoubushi?
First, the heads and entrails are removed and then the fish is placed in a basket boiled in seawater. Once that is done, they are moved to a drying chamber. After a few days of drying, they are placed in a two-story room, where they are smoked from multiple directions with heat and wind from a fire made from sawtooth oak and other hardwoods to conjure aroma. Following the smoke session, the fish are piled up in the open air so that they can be exposed to sea breezes for several days. Finally, the fish are spread out over the ground and are dried slowly by natural sunlight. Most of the process is done by hand and takes some considerable time and effort.
I personally witnessed the men and women at work and though the process requires some considerable skill, the laborers appeared quite capable and collaborated well as a team.
It is a good thing that the staff we have has mastered this labor-intensive work, but I worry about the future because we don’t have many young men and women who can take over this endeavor when the present workers retire. This sort of outdoor work is susceptible to extreme weather conditions, so machines could standardize the process, making it more efficient and with considerable less staff. But Mr. Ogawa insists on this traditional method because it prioritizes flavor. The processing plant is located on a promontory jutting out into the bay— the sea breezes coming in from three directions make it a natural environment for the traditional course.
As something of a connoisseur of soup stock, what are your thoughts on Owariya’s broth, also made from zoubushi produced over a long period of time involving skilled labor?
In the course of my work, I have had the pleasure of tasting many different kinds of dashi from all over Japan. I would describe Owariya’s dashi as “thick.” I sense luxurious ingredients, like exquisitely blended kelp and elegant zoubushi. Owariya’s dashi complements the flavor of soba noodles nicely. It’s my opinion that they produce a high-quality blend by national standards.