The superhero ingredient in transforming deliciousness in Kyoto cuisine is a condiment called dashi.
Owariya’s dashi is rich in umami flavor and can enhance dishes so well because of two key components, Kyoto’s underground freshwater and kelp from Rishiri, an island off the north coast of Hokkaido.
The relationship between kelp and water is the bedrock of quality umami.
Many days at Owariya begin with making soup stock.
The kelp is soaked in water pumped up from an underground aquifer, slowly heated over a small fire, with special care taken not to muddy the broth. Then, shavings of mackerel, urume, and other fish are mixed in as a finishing touch to enhance the umami delicacy.
Immerse yourself in the aroma of the dashi broth, the quality of its complexity fragrant in the steam rising from a hot bowl of soup. Owariya’s “otsuyu,” has a deep, rich flavor in an umami taste particular to Kyoto, as the comingling of kombu (kelp) and underground water is so full-bodied.
Underneath the valley that makes up much of Kyoto City is a “mizubon,” a basin filled with abundant freshwater. This water has been a source for developing local cultures– like tea ceremony and kaiseki dining–famous throughout Japan. Over many generations, Owariya has had a family tradition of utilizing this groundwater as a foundation for its dashi, a natural flavor agent used for enhancing delicious soba noodle meals.
The kelp most compatible with Kyoto’s water, the kelp that really brings out the umami flavor comes from Rishiri, a small island off the north coast of Hokkaido. Along with Fukushima Katsuo, a dashi wholesaler who has been procuring ingredients for our restaurant for many years, we visited Rishiri, along with Rebun, a neighboring island, to see how the kelp is harvested.
When was kelp introduced from faraway Hokkaido to Kyoto?
The arrival of Rishri kelp to Kyoto dashi occurred when the maritime routes around Japanese ports began really flourishing during the Edo period (1603-1867). Kelp was introduced from Hokkaido to Osaka and from there to Kyoto by trading ships called “Kitamae-bune,” which plied the winds between Osaka and Hokkaido, trading goods along the ports on the way on the Japan Sea coastline.
Kyoto was originally a vegetarian food culture, as it was inland and surrounded by mountains, making it difficult to obtain seafood. Therefore, when kelp came to the city, it was initially viewed as a new component of vegetarian cuisine.
This history corresponds with Owariya’s background, which originated as a buckwheat shop supplying confections to the Imperial Palace and Zen Buddhist temples. When it began producing soba noodles for temples, the meals were vegetarian.
Yes, that is correct. There exists a variety of theories regarding the origin of dashi broth culture, so it is difficult to say exactly when and how it came to be used, but the soba noodles eaten by Zen monks during the Edo Period may have been made with kombu dashi broth. Also, although kombu and bonito did not become widely available to the general public until after the Meiji Period (1868-1912), I believe that dashi was skillfully utilized as a creative approach to really make the most of the vegetables at hand, vegetables being central to the diet at that time.
Many Japanese are unaware of soba’s origin story, that before it was served commercially it was eaten by Zen monks. It’s truly remarkable when you think about it, but the soba made in Kansai (Kyoto) and Kanto (Greater Tokyo) regions are so unique in terms of tsuyu (broth) that the same buckwheat noodles could be considered different dishes.
The single most important element in making dashi broth from kombu (kelp) is the softness of the water. Kansai-region water is quite soft, making it very companionable with kombu dashi, and when supplemented with dried bonito flakes the umami quality becomes all the more distinct. It creates a dipping or flavoring sauce that requires very little or no extra seasoning. Kanto-area water is not as suitable for dashi due to the water’s hardness, which explains a later arrival of kombu to the region, so cooks there relied more heavily on soy sauce to compensate for umami, leading to a more dark-hued noodle soup.
Most Japanese kelp is produced in Hokkaido and there are different types depending on the regional coastline, including Donan, Rausu, Hidaka, and others. So I wonder why Rishiri kelp is especially favored in Kyoto?
Each region has its unique qualities, and the preference for a certain kind of kelp largely depends on its compatibility with local climates. Besides having a strong umami flavor and a clear soup stock, Rishiri’s kombu has a more refined aroma, and when combined with bonito flakes it helps the other ingredients thrive. Owariya really likes this aroma.