Visiting the origin of our konbu in deep Hokkaido vol.2
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Visiting the origin of our konbu in deep Hokkaido vol.2

Text: Eri Ishida
Photo: Ariko Inaoka

Rishiri kelp is indispensable for Owariya’s signature soba sauce. This is the second part of our journey to the producers of kombu, who spend an enormous amount of time and effort cultivating the kelp in this rich environment on a remote island in Japan.

Related ArticleVisiting the origin of our konbu in deep Hokkaido vol.1

How to make umami-rich kelp for dashi.

We visited Rishiri Island its neighbor, Rebun, but the production area of Rishiri kelp includes the coastlines from Wakkani on Hokkaido towards the Okhostsk Coast in the direction of Russia. Are there many differences between the area’s “Rishiri kelp?”

There is not a great deal of difference between the region’s kelp beds, but like the terroir of a vineyard, each area’s kombu has a slightly different flavor depending on topography and tidal currents. What area to procure your kombu from will depend on the chef’s bias, much like his or her preference for a certain kidn of wine. In Kyoto, there are many admirers of kombu from the Kabuka area of Rebun Island, including Owariya, which used Kabuka kelp.

Rebun Island, located northwest of Rishiri, is a neighboring kelp production area. Kambuka to the southeast is known for its particular fragrance. During the summer harvest season, one can view kelp drying all over the island.

From my understanding, Fukushima Katsuo regularly holds training sessions for its employees, in which they learn about the harvesting process while working with the local producers in Rishiri and Rebun Islands.

I believe that working on location, even just for one day, can help someone better comprehend the challenges of the process. One of the training sites we visited this time was the Rishiri Island producer, Shuichi Nihama. His family business has been making kelp for more than fifty years. During the harvest season (July through the first half of September), it’s a lively workspace with many seasonal part-time workers. It’s at this time that the master rides his boat out in the middle of the night, around 2AM, while his daughter awakens at 1AM daily to assemble bento boxes for the workers.

In order to prevent kelp from getting mired in gravel during the drying process, the drying area is covered with large gravel grains.

If you’re fishing at 2AM, it’s pitch black night, right?

There’s a reason for fishing in the middle of the night, and that is so we can create enough time for “drying,” this being the most paramount step in kelp production. Nowadays, there are a lot more artificial ways to dry kelp, but many of the clients we procure for prefer to have their kelp dried in the sun, which means it’s essential to have enough sunlight. When the weather is good, the kelp dries in five to six hours, but if it’s raining, it becomes quite difficult, as the kelp will need to be moved around. The reason why we still insist on sun-drying is that when exposed to direct sunlight, the skin acquires a different sheen, which leads to a unique broth flavor.

Both ends are trimmed off with scissors and shaped, then graded according to length, weight, color and flaws. The severed ends– called mimi kombu (ear kelp literally) are sold at a discounted price.
Mr. Kohei Okura, a kelp producer in Kabuka on Rebun Island, is engaged in both natural and cultivated kelp production. Originally from Osaka, he moved to Rebun Island to take over for a part-time kelp producer during the harvesting season.

What are the benefits of letting the kelp rest?

If the kelp “rests,” then the amino acids and sugars react over time, elevating the elegant sweet aroma while diminishing the smell of seaweed. The period of time to lay it down is usually two to three years.
At Fukushima Katsuo, we buy the formed pieces and let them rest in our own warehouse before serving.

The kelp is cut into pieces and bound, and finally, stored in a climate-control environment.

In Japanese you have a concept of hare to ke– the extraordinary and the everyday. I like to think this extraordinary effort of production that dates back centuries provides so much value in the everyday, the bowl of soup we order at our favorite restaurant. Owariya’s otsuyu is a special taste connected to the city’s history and the country’s traditions.

Besides ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants), very few establishments take dashi soup stock so seriously. But so do the kombu producers. But how long can this traditional process last? Due to our workforce aging and climate change, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the original flavor wrought from this labor- and time-intensive process. This is the reason that we, as wholesalers, want to convey the history and background of this culinary tradition.