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.
Owariya’s soup stock is blended in a traditional style
Once a large pot of underground Kyoto soft water (from the region’s aquifer) has absorbed Hokkaido kelp slowly over a small fire, the kombu (kelp) is removed and fish shavings are dispersed over the pot as the water comes to a boil. The trick is having the right ratio of flakes— a generous but not overzealous amount. The shavings flutter into the clear kombu-flavored dashi, sinking slowly to the bottom of the pot, and cooked over a low fire for time enough that the umami flavor can be optimally absorbed into the broth.
Natural water in the Kansai region tends towards softness, making it compatible with kombu. Once you add fish fish flakes you give the dashi a deeper flavor. Quality can vary depending on the ingredients used, how they are blended, and whether the chefs included other spices. The main source of the aromatic and nourishing flavor in Owariya’s dashi broth is kombu from Hokkaido. It is a traditional practice that requires considerable labor and attention to natural elements.
We visited the processing plant of Mr. Kiyohiko Ogawa, a producer in Ushibuka, Kumamoto Prefecture, which is famous as the largest producer of Zoubushi (the aforementioned flakes from mackerel and herring), guided by a representative from Fukushima Bonito Company.
If we say “bonito flakes,” the first thing that comes to mind for most people is “katsuobushi,” because “zoubushi” is a lot less familiar. So what are the types and characteristics of zoubushi?
Typical types of fish used in zoubushi are herring, mackerel, and saba fish. These three species of fish are commonly used as a flavor agent in noodle soup stock in the Kansai region (including at Owariya). In particular, due to its elegant and rich umami flavor, herring is indispensable in making Kansai dashi, while mackerel has an elegant richness that gained popularity during the early Taisho period (1912-1926). Lastly, saba bonito (called meijika in Kansai) is smaller than regular bonito, but has a more full-bodied flavor, and is somewhat popular in Kyoto, where people love its distinct aroma.
When did the process of making zobushi first come into use?
We can’t say for sure when exactly it was first discovered, but we know for certain that it was during the Edo period (1603-1868) when zoubushi gained in popularity. This was a comparatively peaceful era in Japanese history: a merchant class was ascendant and with interregional trade networks developing, the distribution of dried bonito became more active. Dried bonito was especially useful as a preservative agent when there was more fish caught than could be sold or distributed. Utilizing zoubushi meant not wasting it, leading to ventures in smoking, long exposure to sunlight and fermentation.
We are in the Ushibuka region of Kumamoto Prefecture, located at the southernmost tip of the Amakusa Islands, which consist of more than 120 islands of various shapes and sizes. It is the largest producer of zoubushi in Japan. I understand that the producer, Mr. Kiyohiko Ogawa, has long advocated the preservation of traditional methods related to making Zoubushi.
Due to climate change as well as various other environmental developments, the fish catch has been decreasing most years. Our challenges are made even more complex due to the demographic crisis facing the country. The population in rural communities is aging and there are not enough young folks to help with the labor, leading to an introduction of machine process in some production areas.
However, Mr. Ogawa remains committed to preserving the original flavor of the fish via traditional, albeit labor-intensive methods without relying on machines. He is one of very few producers continuing to do so.