By Naohiro Yoshida / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNARUTO, Tokushima — Turbulent whirlpools that measure up to 20 meters in diameter in waters off the coast of Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture, are the claim to fame for the city. It is thanks to these strong vortices that one of the local specialties is wakame with a supple texture and pleasant firmness.
One day in early spring, I visited Awata fishing port, about 10 kilometers west of the Naruto Strait, where swirling whirlpools can be seen. The port faces the Seto Inland Sea. Shuichi Hamada, 42, a fourth-generation fisherman, was working hard to ship wakame harvested that morning.
Each wakame stretches 2 to 3 meters in length and consists of several parts: The root, which is called mekabu; the hard stalk that extends from the mekabu; and the leaves at the tip.
Hamada cut the stalks into about 20-centimeter-long pieces, while also removing damaged portions at the very tips of the leaves.
This year’s harvest began in early February, about a week later than usual. But Hamada seems to be satisfied with the quality of the seaweed, saying: “They are thick and shiny on the surface. [This year’s] wakame have grown to become supple.”
Hamada begins cultivating wakame around November when the sea temperature has fallen low enough. He attaches seaweed seeds to ropes 12 millimeters wide and 50 meters long. He takes about 200 such ropes roughly 1 kilometer offshore and spreads them over the sea’s surface, fixing them in place with anchors.
After about three months, when the wakame grow to 2 to 3 meters long, Hamada harvests them by pulling the ropes up onto his fishing boat.
When wakame are fully grown, they hover just below the surface. If the water in the cultivation area looks dark when Hamada approaches on his boat, it is a sign that the seaweed have grown well. “That makes me feel good,” Hamada said.
If the wakame grow well, floats attached to the ropes are dragged into the water due to the weight of the seaweed.
This year, the floats were still on the surface in early February when Hamada started harvesting. But they began to dip below the surface in the latter half of the month, which made him realize how fast his wakame had grown.
After the harvest, Hamada dives to catch abalone and turban shells. “When I have harvested the seaweed, I really feel spring has come,” he said with a smile.
At a shop run by the Kitanada fishermen’s cooperative association, to which Hamada belongs, association official Yasushi Nakamura, 57, prepared some dishes featuring Naruto wakame.
A bowl of sumashi-jiru clear soup, made from sea bream dashi broth, contained chopped mekabu and stalks that were shredded before being knotted, along with fillets of locally caught sea bream and slices of daikon radish and carrots.
The mekabu was crunchy, while the stalks had a crisp texture. A sip of the soup filled my mouth with the fresh aroma of wakame and the refined flavor of the fish.
“Thanks to the stickiness of the mekabu, the soup won’t get cold quickly,” Nakamura said.
Another dish prepared was oden hot pot featuring knotted stalks of wakame, along with such ingredients as locally caught octopus and chikuwa fish cakes, another Naruto specialty.
The stalks had a mild firmness with a fresh flavor distinctive to seaweed, which comes about from absorbing the gentle flavor of sea salt. The thick octopus tentacle was also rich in its sweetness and umami flavor, brought about by a dashi broth prepared with dried bonito.
In either dish, sea bream or octopus may otherwise be treated as a main ingredient, but the wakame was tasty as well, a delicacy that concentrates all the spring blessings of the Seto Inland Sea in one bite.
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