Snack makers experiment with kombu

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Naniwaya’s Dashimaki Roll features cream containing dashi from wild ma-kombu harvested in Hokkaido.

By Toshiko Kuba / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“We want to develop new desserts genre called ‘sweets featuring umami’ and spread Kansai’s dashi culture,” Kentaro Fujihashi said.

Fujihashi, 39, is the president of Naniwaya, an Osaka-based kombu and snack company. He has made efforts to familiarize people with kombu by giving lectures on topics including how to make dashi, and his company is part of a trend among pastry chefs to add kombu’s umami flavor to their wares.

Naniwaya began selling its Dashimaki Roll (¥1,458) to mark “Kombu Day” (Nov. 15) last year. It’s a Swiss roll with cream containing dashi made with wild ma-kombu from Hokkaido to add a mild, rich taste. The roll is topped with thin strips of salted kombu as a decoration.

Naniwaya sells the rolls as local souvenirs at JR Shin-Osaka Station and other places, aiming at annual sales of ¥100 million.

Although kombu is a leading example of an umami-rich Japanese foodstuff, the volume purchased domestically has dropped by half over the last 30 years, mainly due to changes in Japanese diets. Recently, though, various kinds of so-called kombu sweets, which highlight the sea product’s umami have gone on the market, providing opportunities for people to refamiliarize themselves with the subtle flavors of kombu through popular food items such as ice cream and cakes.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), high-quality kombu harvested in Hokkaido was distributed to areas across the country by ships called “kitamaebune,” meaning vessels for northerly journeys. Osaka — then nicknamed “the kitchen of the nation” — became a focal point for kombu, and this background helped the culture of kombu dashi grow in the Kansai region.

Today, however, many households use instant dashi and do not serve kombu dishes as often as they used to. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s family budget survey, the annual purchase volume of kombu per household in the country was 318 grams in 2015, down from the 1985 levels of 648 grams.

City of kombu

Toyama Prefecture is a leading kombu-consuming area, and the city of Takaoka was one of the sites where the kitamaebune dropped anchor. The Takaoka city government is attempting to use kombu sweets to revitalize the region.

The local government and the city’s chamber of commerce and industry formed a planning committee to promote food branding in Takaoka along with other groups. Since 2013, the committee has advertised sweets using kombu as Takaoka Kombu Sweets. Sixteen items including ohagi bean cakes and pound cakes created by participating sweet shops are available at their shops and the Manyo no Sato Takaoka roadside rest area.

Masayuki Nunomura, an assistant chief of Manyo no Sato Takaoka, was involved in the establishment of the committee.

“Tourists won’t stop by the city if it doesn’t have attractive local food to offer,” he said. “The particular food which best represents Takaoka is kombu. We want to preserve our culture by consuming kombu through sweets, which are particularly popular among young people.”

Umami key element of washoku

Umami is the fifth major taste category after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It leaves a somewhat broth-like taste on the taste buds and is an essential flavor in any number of washoku dishes.

In the early 20th century, Prof. Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University chemistry department discovered the chemical characteristics of the fifth taste. He is from Kyoto and was interested in kombu dashi stock used for dishes. He found that an amino acid called glutamine is the source of the umami flavor derived from kombu.

On top of glutamine, inosinic acid from bonito flakes and guanylic acid from dried shiitake mushrooms are also important constituents of umami-flavored foods.

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