I first consciously ate kelp when I came to Japan in 1962. Slowly stewed, it took the form of those small, almost black bows of a soft and tasty vegetable in the traditional, souplike dish of oden. Later I ate it wrapped around fish, or used it with dried bonito as a base for soup stock. I chose the word “consciously” because, since ages past, Europeans have used this seaweed as a source of alginic acid, a colloidal polysaccharide used to make jellies.
Being originally from South Wales, as a boy I thought that we Welsh were the only folk in the world to eat seaweed, mostly because of the reaction the dish provoked in nearly every English person I ever met who tried it.
In Wales, though, laver (called “laver bread,” which resembles blackish porridge rather than bread) is cooked up for breakfast with oatmeal, bacon and cockles. I loved it as a lad and still do, and was delighted to find it served in all kinds of ways here in Japan. The most common form of laver here is nori — the black, papery stuff that’s wrapped around sushi.
In the intervening years, I have found that quite a few coastal peoples eat some kind of seaweed, though not, I believe, as many kinds as are enjoyed in Japan. One of my favorite seaweed dishes (I would prefer them to be called “sea vegetables”) was one I tasted for the first time in southern Baffin Island in Cumberland Sound in the Canadian Arctic. The tides there are extreme, as much as 12 meters in some places, and deep bays, inlets and fjords cause massive amounts of seawater to flow in and out in powerful, fast currents and through many whirlpools. In some places these currents can keep patches of open water free of ice all winter, and at extreme low tides you can see the dark upper fronds of kelp close to the surface.
On my first expeditions to Baffin Island back in the late 1960s, I was doing research on seal biology and on the use of seals by the Inuit. That meant traveling by sled and freighter canoe and eating a lot of seal meat. The other staple was bannock, an oatmeal cake we washed down with tea. You can get very constipated on that diet, especially with an active life in the cold, when your body needs far more water than usual.
It was on a long dogsled journey that I had my first experience of the traditional Inuit dish they call quonni.
With this in mind, the hunters stopped by an open patch of water at low tide, and from the ice around they snagged up a whole lot of green kelp fronds. These were taken to camp. In the main tent, a big pot of water was set up on a kerosene stove. Then, the intestines of a ringed seal (bearded seals’ guts are good, too) were cleaned in snow, cut into short lengths, tied into little knots and tossed into the pot. Chopped heart, liver, kidney and juicy ribs followed.
As the pot simmered away, we all sat around, each with a bowl or bucket of fresh kelp beside us. We dipped the dark green fronds into the hot water. They turned bright green and soft enough to be just slightly chewy. With our fingers we ate a whole lot of kelp, the first vegetables we had had for weeks. Later, after the ribs and so on were well cooked and consumed, what was left was a wonderful, rich, kelp-flavored broth — a liquor considered by the Inuit to be especially good for old folk and pregnant or nursing mothers.
I honestly think I prefer quonni to any other soup I have tasted anywhere in the world — especially with freshly baked bannock.
I was telling this story to Dr. Nobuaki Takahashi, who has for years being doing research on kelp, sea urchins and so forth at a marine research center on Rishiri Island, which is part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido. Rishiri kelp, which is a major and well-known product of that region, is cultured on 100-meter-long, heavy wire cables. Only the thicker, second-year kelp is harvested, dried and sold. The younger, first-year spring kelp is weeded out and tossed aside. It is this more delicate kelp that the Inuit use, and which I had enjoyed as shabu shabu in Baffin Island.
For five years now, we have had a yearly meeting of what we call our “Mottainai,” or “What a Waste” club. The club’s members are chefs, usually but not always young, from some of the top traditional restaurants in Kyoto, as well as others versed in French, Italian and Chinese cuisines. Last year we used reviled black bass and bluegill fish as our culinary themes. Previously we have dined on ducks that were used as pest-controllers on paddy fields, before being entirely wastefully incinerated. In years past, we have also had on our club’s menu the foreleg, neck and other usually abandoned portions of hunted wild boar and venison. This year we decided to use this normally discarded first-year spring kelp.
We held the event at Ugenta, my friends’ inn in Kibune, Kyoto. With 10 chefs and their assistants (including the renowned Yoshihiro Murata of the restaurant Kiku no Oi), together with Dr. Takahashi, a group of Rishiri islanders and a gaggle of non-cooking gourmet guests, we numbered about 50 in all.
Topping for canapes
The variety of kelp dishes was amazing. The taste and texture of young kelp is very delicate, and lends itself brilliantly to traditional Japanese dishes. Probably because it contains, among other things, sodium glutamate, kelp imparts umami — a taste defined by Japanese, and now recognized by chefs the world over, but which is very hard to translate. Kelp-based umami accents the natural flavors in the food, sauces and soups prepared with it.
We even had kelp as a crisp, crunchy, translucent and surprisingly delicious sugary cracker. Combined in thin layers in a clear jelly with salmon and sea bream, it made an outstanding topping for canapes. We even used it to wrap and bake whole fish, or in salads, just as with the commonly used sea lettuce, or wakame. In all, we had 30 or more dishes.
There is no doubt that kelp is good for you. It was traditionally burned in Europe for its ashes, which used to be the main source of iodine. Without iodine in your system, especially in the thyroid gland, you get goiter.
Dr. Takahashi spoke very briefly on the health benefits of kelp, an important one being — which those at the event can all confirm — its role in banishing constipation. Indeed, research indicates that kelp contains substances that may even help to cure colonic and prostrate cancer. My daughter, visiting from Canada, tells me that many people in North America now take kelp capsules as a supplement to their diet.
As long as it is not over-exploited, it makes sense to me to use this spring kelp rather than throw it away. Not only will it improve our health and increase our ability in Japan to feed ourselves, but it will also greatly assist the fisherfolk of Rishiri, where kelp-gathering is labor intensive, and the climate can be harsh. Moreover, the outlay in equipment is very high and the average age of island fishermen is 65. As in all the primary industries of Japan, local young people tend to shun the tough life and move away. Some extra income and a little more promise for the future might persuade more of them to stay.
In Japan we have a very wide and diverse traditional use of wild foods, but the cooking tends to be very conservative. Our friendly and informal Mottainai club hopes to bring new, healthy, viable and delicious additions to our table. Besides, I’ve made so many friends among chefs in Kyoto that I have no lack of outstanding places to eat and drink in that often elusive, if not exclusive, city.