The seasonality of fruits, vegetables, nuts and fungi growing in the fields and mountains of Japan is fairly obvious to many of us who we are familiar with such places and foods.
The seasonality of the sea, however, remains relatively unknown even among the most serious food lovers. Despite having spent 28 years cooking in Japan, the most recent seven of them writing cookbooks, my education regarding the sea’s bounty is still a work in progress. The fishmongers at my local fish market are my patient yet enthusiastic teachers, and under their tutelage my knowledge has grown exponentially.
Once the task of my husband, buying fish has become an exciting and eagerly anticipated endeavor. No longer lacking in confidence, I relish the opportunity to break down a squid to make shiokara or gut a fish to hang it out to dry. But even more than the sea’s fauna, its flora enthrall me for their myriad shapes, flavors and textures.
Spring is the season for fresh sea greens, meaning your local market or fish market will likely have a wide variety of fascinating types available right now.
Sea greens, most often called seaweed, are perhaps the most overlooked treasures of Japanese food culture. When dried, they keep forever, and also take up little space in the larder. Full of nutrients, fiber and flavor, sea greens can be added at the last minute to dishes — Western or Japanese — almost as a garnish.
Here are just a few ideas: Fluffy, vaguely spongy aosa-nori, for example, can be tossed in flour and deep-fried for a tasty snack. And viscous mekabu (konbu buds), julienned and chartreuse green from a lashing of boiling water, are wonderfully slurpable and delightful as a simple cold salad. Jagged, small fern-like strands of matsumo and burnished akamoku meanwhile need a quick dip in boiling water before being eaten with ponzu, a citrus-based sauce. Red tangled tendrils of funori are lovely in udon or soba soups, and tiny pieces of hijiki are often folded into smashed tofu dishes to enhance the mild quality of the soybean curd.
But wakame, the humblest of all sea greens, is arguably the most versatile and appealing. Wakame adds color and texture to vinegar sunomono treatments and miso soups. Gently reminiscent of the sea itself, when swished through boiling water, mahogany-brown wakame is shocked into a jade green and becomes meltingly soft.
In seaside areas, strands of freshly-harvested wakame can be seen draped over bamboo poles to dry under the mild spring sun. Semi-dried wakame is often tossed in salt and packed in plastic bags to preserve it. But where can this bounty of the sea be got?
In years past where I live, an insistent countrywoman hailing from some remote coastal village on the Sea of Japan came door-to-door hawking her wares. I would buy a 1-kilogram bag of wakame from her whenever she turned up, whether I needed it or not.
But now she comes no more, and I rely on the dried wakame and other sea greens processed by the fishermen’s wives of the village of Tanohata in Iwate Prefecture once the season for fresh sea greens passes at our local fish market.
Tanohata, on the Northeastern corner of Iwate, is a plucky village of some 4,000 inhabitants. Inundated by tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the village’s line of devastation is immediately discernible by the new prefab buildings that lie several meters above sea level. Although tiny, the village is resourceful, and that quality inspired me to visit several times last year — though never in the spring.
The fishermen’s wives’ association dry, pack and dispatch the sea greens they gather out of a nondescript post-earthquake building near the docks. And, unusually for such a local product, the packaging is adorned with an extremely cool label designed by Takahashi Design in the city of Morioka.
I travel to the U.S. periodically to do collaboration dinners at like-minded restaurants on both coasts, and always bring the necessary artisanal Japanese ingredients. Soy sauce, mirin, vinegar and miso help to take my baggage weight right to the limit, but dried sea greens such as wakame are light as a feather. Reconstituted wakame swells up an impressive five-to-six times its volume, so two 20-gram packs of dried wakame are enough for a 90-person dinner. And given the attractive packaging, dried sea greens make a light and affordable gift from Japan.
When traveling in far-flung areas of Japan, I recommend visiting the local JA (Japan Agriculture) or JFA (Japan Fisheries Association) stands because these are where the local people shop. You won’t find much fish at the JFA stand, but there will be all sorts of dried sea-related products, including dried sea greens. Bring your discoveries home and experiment! Sea greens go well with any country’s cuisine, and add a hint of the ocean to a hastily thrown-together meal. What’s not to like about that?