Kombu (昆布 konbu?) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as konbu (Japanese), dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带; traditional Chinese: 海帶; pinyin: Hǎidài). Some edible kelps in the family Laminariaceae are not always called kombu, such as arame, kurome (Ecklonia kurome) or Macrocystis pyrifera. Most kombu is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. Over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea with the development of cultivation technology today.
In Old Japanese, edible seaweed was generically called "me" (cf. wakame, arame) and the kanji such as "軍布", 海藻 or "和布" were applied to transcribe the word. Especially, kombu was called hirome (from hiroi, wide) or ebisume (from ebisu). Sometime thereafter the names konfu and kofu appeared respectively in two editions of Iroha Jirui Shō in 12th-13th century.
Various theories have been claimed over the origin of the name kombu, with the following two dominant today.
One is that it originated from the On'yomi (Sino-Japanese reading) of the Chinese name 昆布 (kūnbù). The kanji itself already could be seen in Shōsōin Monjo (8th century) and Shoku Nihongi (797) in Japan, and furthermore trace back in China, as early as 3rd century, to the book Wupu Bencao (around 239). Li Shizhen wrote the following in his Bencao Gangmu (1596).
Come to think about it, Wupu Bencao says "綸布 (gūanbù), alias 昆布 (kūnbù)." Then, what is mentioned in the Erya as "(what is pronounced) 綸 resembles 綸. This is in the East China Sea" is kūnbù. The pronouciation of 綸 is 関 (gūan), meaning cord made by blue thread, and got corrupted to 昆 (kūn).
— Li Shizhen, Bencao Gangmu
However kūnbù in Chinese and kombu in Japanese are false friends. Since descriptions about kūnbù in Chinese documentaries are abstract and inconsistent, it's impossible to identify what seaweed it was exactly. For instance, Chen Cangqi (681-757) noted "kūnbù is produced in the South China Sea; its leave is like a hand and the size is as same as a silver grass and a reed, is of red purple; the thin part of leave is seaweed", which reminds of wakame, arame, kurome, or kajime (Ecklonia cava). Actually, at least in the time, kombu was not produced either in the East nor in the South China Sea. Moreover, Li Shizhen classified, following Zhang Yuxi, kūnbù and haidai (stands for kombu in Chinese) as different things and this classification has been continuing in China up to today.
The second is that it originated from kompu standing for kombu in the Ainu language. Kompu in Ainu quite resembles gūanbù or kūnbù in Chinese, and it's possible to assume one is a loanword from the other.
"Qūan resembles 綸 (lace, cord or rope). This is in the East China Sea." from the Erya (3rd-2nd century BC) and "Gūanbù, alias kūnbù" from the Wupu Bencao (3rd century). Tao Hongjing(456-536) noted kūnbù is edible. As previously mentioned, however, kūnbù can not be identified with kombu. Zhang Yuxi referred to haidai in the book 嘉祐補註神農本草 (1060).
Though seaweed is hard to find as archaeological evidence because of its easy decomposition, some plant remains of seaweed such as wakame are found in some ruins of the Jōmon Period and the fact leads the supposition that kombu was eaten as well at the time. As to surviving documentary the letters 軍布 (In Sino-Japanese reading 軍 is gun/kun ; 布 is fu/pu/bu), appeared in Man'yōshū and wood strips from Fujiwara-kyō, may have indicated kombu. The Shoku Nihongi(797) tells: in 797 Suga no Komahiru (ja) of Emishi (Ainu or Tohoku region people) stated they had been offering up kombu, which grew there, as tribute to the Yamato court every year without fail. The Engishiki (927) also tells it had been offered up by Mutsu.
During the Muromachi period, a newly developed drying technique allowed it to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period, as Hokkaidō was colonized and shipment routes were organized, the use of kombu became widespread throughout Japan. Traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet; this practice began in the Edo period. Okinawa uses more kombu per household than any other prefecture. In the 20th century, a way to cultivate it was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.
In 1867, the word "kombu" first appeared in an English-language publication—A Japanese and English Dictionary by James Curtis Hepburn.
Since the 1960s, dried kombu has been exported from Japan to many countries. It was available initially at Asian, and Japanese in particular, food shops and restaurants, and has later been sold by supermarkets, health-food stores, and other nonspecialised suppliers.
Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi, a soup stock. Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (boro kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi. Making kombu dashi is simple, though the powder form may also be used. A strip of dried kombu in cold water, then heated to near-boiling, is the first step of making dashi and the softened kombu is commonly eaten after cooking. It can also be sliced and used to make tsukudani, a dish that is simmered in soy sauce and mirin.
Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It is often included when cooking beans, putatively to add nutrients and improve their digestibility.
Kombucha, "seaweed tea", is a beverage brewed from dried and powdered kombu. This is sometimes confused with the unrelated English word kombucha, an incorrect yet accepted neologism for the fermented and sweetened tea from Russia, which is called kōcha kinoko (紅茶キノコ) in Japan.
Kombu is also used to prepare a seasoning for rice to be made into sushi.
Nutrition and health effects
Kombu is a good source of glutamic acid, an amino acid responsible for umami (the Japanese word used for a basic taste identified in 1908). Several foodstuffs in addition to kombu provide glutamic acid or glutamates.
Kombu contains iodine, a mineral that is essential for normal growth and development. However, its high iodine content has been blamed for thyroid problems after drinking large amounts of soy milk in which kombu was an additive. Therefore people suffering from hyperthyroidism should rather eat wakame which contains a lower amount of iodine.
It is also a source of dietary fiber.
(Japanese name followed by species)
- Karafuto kombu (Saccharina latissima), contains mannitol and is considered sweeter
- Ma-kombu (Saccharina japonica)
- Mitsuishi-kombu or dashi-kombu (Saccharina angustata), commonly used in the making of dashi
- Naga-kombu (Saccharina longissima)
- Rishiri-kombu (Saccharina ochotensis), commonly used for soup stocks
- Abbott, Isabella A (1989). "Food and food products from seaweeds". In Lembi, Carole A.; Waaland, J. Robert. Algae and human affairs. Cambridge University Press, Phycological Society of America. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-521-32115-0.
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- Man'yōshū and wood strips from Fujiwara-kyō. Between late 7th and early 8th century
- Shōsōin Monjo (ja) (documents of Shōsōin; 8th century) and Fudoki.
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- Li Shizhen, Bencao Gangmu
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- 爾雅 (The Erya) 釋草(Commentaries on Grasses)
- 日本ひじき協議会 (Japan Hijiki Council)
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- Genetically Engineered Stomach Microbe Converts Seaweed into Ethanol, Scientific American, 2012-01-19
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