The essence of the flavor known as “umami” also comes from glutamic acid found in kombu broth. Gaining popularity for its delicate and mild taste, kombu broth began to be used widely in and around Kansai in vegetarian dishes and high-end Japanese cuisine, forming the base of Kyoto cuisine.。
Suita Shoten's contribution to kombu broth's reach in Kanto
Althought kombu broth originally developed in Kansai, in Kanto its popularity grew thanks partly to Suita Shoten, a historical kombu wholesaler in the outer market of the Tsukiji Fish Market, with over 100 years of history. When we visited the store, we were welcomed by Katsuyoshi Suita, the fifth-generation successor of the store. The Japanese craftsman jacket he wears is adorned with a large crest of his family, reminiscent of their long history.
“We were established in 1892. Our first store was in the Utsubo district, Osaka. We opened a branch in Tokyo in 1927,” says Suita.
A few years before their Tokyo launch, many important business magnates from Kansai were summoned to Tokyo to help projects to recover Tokyo from the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. However, in Tokyo at the time, people were making broth mostly from bonito and there were requests from the magnates, being used to kombu broth but not being able to obtain quality kombu in Tokyo, that they wanted kombu sold in Tokyo as well. Apparently, the third-generation successor of Suita Shoten opened a Tokyo to respond to this demand. Having won buyers’ trust from connoisseurship evidenced by their long history, Suita Shoten now has a long list of wholesale customers including high-end Japanese restaurants and hotel restaurants in and around Tokyo.
All of Suita Shoten’s kombu is sourced from Hokkaido. Suita makes regular visits to Hokkaido where the kombu is grown, to gather information from producers about the kombu’s quality. During these visits, Suita also determines how much kombu can be collected in order to figure out which type is best, as well as to narrow down the candidates he purchases from.
“The restaurants we have a long relationship with just tell us, ‘Give us the usual’. They leave it to us to select the kombu. We cannot have a sustainable business unless we can continuously and unmistakably provide good products,” says Suita.
No single answer to how to make kombu broth
Suita Shoten mainly deals with five types of kombu: True kombu, Rishiri-kombu, Rausu-kombu, Hidaka-kombu, and long Kombu. True, Rishiri, Rausu, and Hidaka kombu are used to make broth, while long kombu is more suited for cooking in stews because it does not get unshapely when cooked. According to Suita, professional chefs choose kombu depending on the type of dish they prepare.
“For example, true kombu has a refined taste and suited for dishes like clear soup. When you serve people several types of kombu broths, true kombu is most popular. Rishiri-kombu has a slightly salty taste and is often used in Kyoto style soups and thinly sliced daikon radish pickles. I often recommend Rishiri-kombu if a customer says they are from Kansai. If you want darker broth, Rausu is best. You put 10 to 30 grams of kombu in 1000cc water and leave it in the fridge for half day. Or you cook it on low heat for about 40 minutes and when the water comes to a boil you pull out the kombu,” said Suita, before continuing.
“But I think you don’t have to be that fussy when it comes to home cooking. A while ago, it was part of daily chores for anyone to make kombu broth at home. If you’ve got good quality kombu, you can make good enough broth even if you heat it until it comes to a boil. The important thing is simply to start making broth at home. If you are feeling you are not good at cooking, try making broth yourself for once. It will dramatically improve the taste.”
When it comes to kombu Suita’s tone begins to show passion. It is a portrait of his pride, of having supported Japan’s food culture as a kombu wholesaler.
The new phase of oden created by former kombu wholesaler
We visited a restaurant where Suita Shoten’s kombu was being used to make broth. The chef and owner of Fuku No Kawa Ishida, an oden (Japanese stew) restaurant, is Hideki Ishida, who was head clerk of Suita Shoten for nearly 20 years. Utilizing years of his experience at the broth wholesaler, Ishida opened his restaurant in 2017.
One of his signature menus is “Nibana oden”, a dish where the broth and items to dip in the broth are prepared separately. Just when the item is served Ishida pours broth on top of it.
“If you stew it for a long time, all the flavors of the items like daikon radish mix into the broth. For me, the ideal oden was the one where you could enjoy the individual taste of the broth and the stew items,” says Ishida.
Taking a cue from “nibana”, a word that describes the perfectly cooked state of dishes like stews, Ishida devised the “Nibana oden”.
The broth used for the main dish, “Conger nibana oden” is quite simple. Soaking true kombu in water Ishida heats it thoroughly on low heat for about one hour and then adds bonito flakes, brownstriped mackerel scad flakes, and mackerel flakes to perfect the broth. It tastes delicate, yet rich. The broth is then poured on top of steamed conger that is only slightly browned on the surface. The smooth taste of the broth and the exquisite taste of the conger are felt clearly, lingering on softly afterward.
The next dish: Nibana oden with shiitake mushroom, okra and freeze-dried bean curd, is served with Rishiri-kombu broth mixed with duck broth.
“There are as many ways to prepare a broth as there are restaurants. That is why kombu broth is complex. Suita Shoten matures their kombu for at least a year after buying it. That is why the kombu makes good broth. Chemical seasonings have come far nowadays, but you can only achieve the mild, unobtrusive taste with natural kombu.”
A kombu wholesaler and a chef. The impassioned dish spawned from both perspectives, is a condensation of kombu’s depth and potential.