Konbu (昆布・こんぶ English: kombu) is a type of edible seaweed and arguably the most important in the Japanese diet. It is the seaweed used to make the ubiquitous dashi. What is interesting to note is that the flavour of konbu is dependent on the region it grows in. Therefore the flavour profile of dashi, especially konbu-dashi, will vary depending on where your konbu was grown and harvested. This is similar to how wines are noted for their terroir – the characteristics of the territory/region the grapes are grown in that transfer to the wine.
Konbu is part of the Laminariaceae family, which also includes wakame (若布・わかめ), arame (荒布・あらめ) and kurome (くろめ) (all various types of seaweed). The majority of the konbu that is harvested and eaten is from the saccharina/laminaria japonica species.
Konbu is found in sea forests (also known as kelp forests). Since kelp forests are an ecosystem in themselves, providing a habitat for many marine organisms, they are an ecosystem rife with nutrients. The konbu absorbs all these nutrients, which is why it has become known as a superfood (it is one of the most iodine-rich foods in the world). In addition, konbu is a natural source of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is the basis of monosodium glutamate (aka: MSG), and it is what gives that umami oomph to the konbu and whatever else this seaweed is used in.
(Fun fact on glutamic acid: it helps soften beans while they boil and makes them more easily digestible. This is because glutamic acid is efficient in breaking down heavy starches. As such, a piece of konbu is often tossed into a pot with the beans to be cooked.)
Generally konbu has a mild salty-sweet taste and a chewy texture – there are variances between different types of konbu. Its colour ranges from deep black-green to white. When dried, it becomes quite firm and leathery, and a powdery white substance forms on the surface. This is a visible source of the glutamic acid and should never be wiped off before using (unless you want to end up with an insipid, flavourless, and umami-less dashi). This powder is also an indication of maturation, which signals a good quality dried konbu that is rich in umami.
Most konbu (around 90%) is cultivated in the waters of Hokkaido (the northernmost main island of Japan). The sea temperature around Hokkaido is between 5 and 20 degrees Celsius, which is an ideal range for konbu to grow all year round. These waters are also rich in minerals due to the currents carrying mountain water into the sea. And although it is eaten all around Japan, ironically it is a staple of the cuisine in Okinawa (the southernmost island of Japan).
History of Konbu
The exact moment when konbu was first discovered and used is hard to pinpoint, since tracing the history of something that is so easily decomposed is difficult. However there are records from the Muromachi period (1392-1573 AD) as this was when drying techniques were applied to konbu, allowing longer storage. This application paved the way for konbu to become one of Hokkaido’s major exports. The konbu travelled on kitamaebune (北前船・きたまえぶね) ships from Hokkaido to Osaka, and then from Osaka to the rest of Japan and overseas. This is why many of Japan’s konbu wholesales and processors are located around the Osaka area. The route that the konbu travelled from Hokkaido to its destination was known as The Konbu Route.
Varieties of Konbu
The varying types of konbu can be split into two general categories: by type and by region. Regional konbu take the name of the region they are grown in, and are particularly eminent among the konbu society. Regional konbu can be a type of konbu as well – think of the regional name as the brand name, like how some people refer to tissues as Kleenex. For example, the regional Rausu-konbu is a type of konbu called oni-konbu.
Konbu differ in colour, taste, aroma, pliability, and texture. Thus certain konbu are better suited for certain dishes and preparation methods.
Types of Konbu
Ma-konbu （真昆布・まこんぶ 真 = true/genuine）
This is a high quality konbu that has a nuanced sweetness. It is also known as the ‘king of konbu‘, as it is widely considered to have the best aroma, flavour and umami. It is light brown to yellow in colour. Ma-konbu produces a high-quality, clear dashi. It is harvested in southern Hokkaido. Hakodate is a major producer, while the Minami-Kayabe region is known for producing high-quality ma-konbu.
Hosome-konbu （細め昆布・ほそめこんぶ 細め = thinnish/somewhat narrow）
Probably the slipperiest among all edible konbu varieties, hosome-konbu also has the whitest cut edges. The rest of the kelp is deep black. The slippery texture means this konbu is better suited for prepared dishes, particularly tororo-konbu (see next section). It is harvested in the summer of its first year of growth.
Naga-konbu （長昆布・ながこんぶ 長 = long）
As its name suggests, naga-konbu is the world’s longest kelp. It can grow up to 13 centimetres in a day, and can reach lengths of between 4 and 12 meters. It is also particularly thin, sporting a width of between 6 and 18 centimetres. It is a greyish-black colour, and is found along the Pacific Coast of the Kushiro and Nemuro regions in Hokkaido. Naga-konbu cooks well, and thus is best suited in simmered dishes, like oden, nimono （煮物・にもの food cooked by boiling or stewing), or konbu-maki (see next section).
When the Japanese think of konbu, this is the type that often comes to mind. It is harvested in northern Hokkaido, around the Rishiri and Rebun islands. Rishiri-konbu has a pronounced sweetness and is slightly saltier than other types. It is dark brown in colour. This konbu is considered to result in the clearest dashi, which is perhaps the reason why it is so popular in Kyoto when preparing dishes for a traditional tea ceremony. It also resists oxidisation when shaved, making it the perfect candidate for high-quality tororo-konbu (see next section).
This is a fragrant and soft konbu that is predominantly harvested in Rausu, a small town located on the Shiretoko Peninsula, in northeastern Hokkaido. It also goes by the name oni-konbu. It has the highest levels of glutamic acids, is softer and thinner than other types of konbu, and it black to dark red in colour. When used to make dashi, it imparts some cloudiness.
Hidaka-konbu/Mitsuishi-konbu （日高昆布・ひだかこんぶ 三石昆布・みついしこんぶ）
Hidaka-konbu is black to dark green in colour and extremely soft. This makes it easy to boil, and to eat. Hence Hidaka-konbu is often used in prepared dishes. It is not preferable to use this type in dashi, because it doesn’t provide much flavour and the resulting stock tends to be cloudy. It is also known as Mitsuishi-konbu – Mitsuishi is a town in the Hidaka region of Hokkaido.
Konbu can be incorporated into a dish either by using it as an ingredient in dashi (which is then used in the dish), or as a standalone ingredient in itself. There are a variety of konbu-specfic dishes/condiments, such as:
- Furikake-konbu （ふりかけ昆布）: thin shaved konbu that are cut into small chips, and used for sprinkling on rice, soup, tofu or salad.
- Kizami-konbu （刻み昆布）: konbu that has been cut into thin noodles and dried. It is reconstituted for use in stir-frys and in nimono.
- Konbu-maki （昆布巻き）: a dish of rolled-up, softened konbu tied with a strip of gourd.
- Shio-konbu （塩昆布）: thin strips of konbu boiled in water, soy sauce, sugar and mirin, and then seasoned.
- Matsumae-zuke （松前漬け）: a mixture of konbu and soft, dried squid, mixed with soy sauce, sake, sugar and vinegar.
- Musubi-konbu （結び昆布 結び = knot）: thinly cut konbu that is knotted and dried. It is often used in major celebrations such as weddings and New Years.
- Oshaburi-konbu （おしゃぶり昆布）: this is the Japanese version of those seaweed snack strips stocked in any Asian grocery store.
- Tororo-konbu （とろろ昆布）: pickled, softened konbu that is layered, pressed and finely shaved. It is often used as a condiment for soups and rice, or wrapped in onigiri （お握り・おにぎり rice balls).
- Tsukudani-konbu （佃煮昆布）: thin strips of konbu that have been boiled in a salty-sweet soy sauce mix. It is often eaten with rice or wrapped in onigiri.
Kombucha: its relation to konbu
Kombucha is a fermented tea, made by adding a yeast culture to a mixture of tea, sugar, and sometimes fruit juice or other flavourings. It is also known as ‘mushroom tea’ because the yeast grows into a mushroom-shaped mass during the fermentation process. The fermentation imparts a slight effervescence, and the flavour is slightly acidic. Depending on who you ask, it could taste like vinegar or granny smith apples, or anything in between. It is somewhat of an acquired taste.
Kombucha was first brewed in ancient China, over 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty (220 BC). It was brewed to be a tonic for inflammation and was so well regarded that it was given the name: The Tea of Immortality.
So far, we can see that the only relation kombucha has to konbu (English: kombu) is literally the word ‘kombu’.
Apparently kombucha made its way into Japan via a Korean doctor, Mr. Kombu, in 414 AD (the Kofun period). Mr. Kombu made kombucha for the then emperor, Inyoko, as a tonic for his digestive problems. The Japanese called this foreign drink koucha kinoko (紅茶キノコ lit: mushroom black tea). However, during this time the Japanese already had a health drink that actually contained konbu as an ingredient. This beverage was a mixture of dried powdered kelp (konbu), green tea (cha) and hot water. In Japanese, this drink was called konbucha （昆布茶・こんぶちゃ）.
So in summary:
- Kombucha = the English name for this fermented drink
- Koucha kinoko = the Japanese name for Kombucha
- Konbucha = the Japanese name for a drink made with powdered konbu
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