Chris and I sent an email to Doi-san before one of our trips to Japan asking if we could spend some time with him to discuss business, but more importantly, konbu. We wanted to learn everything possible about Konbu Doi. His response was more than we expected - he wanted to have us over to his apartment for an all-konbu dinner. Of course we accepted!
It was a rainy Osaka night when we were headed to Doi-san’s apartment. We finally found it down a small alley where we were greeted by his genuine smile. Inside was this very cool, modern, yet warm apartment with a giant wooden table in the middle. He explained that he had been building this apartment himself for 3 years - after the konbu shop closed, he would come straight home and continue to work on one project after another. There were so many amazing details around the apartment - small maracas you pull on to turn on the lights, a hood built directly over the cooking space on a giant table. We would continue to see this attention to detail later throughout the meal in forms of plates, chopstick holders, etc.
When Chris and I sat at the wooden table, Doi-san explained that all of the wood was reclaimed and that this enormous table was one piece of wood. At our place setting was a printed menu that read, “One day only konbu restaurant for Chris and Greg”. It was so special for us to have a menu with that header, the date and all the menu items. After we got comfortable with some beer, the meal began.
The first course was “White Konbu Sheet Roll” which was lightly pickled konbu wrapped around chicken and cucumber. The dish had a distinct vinegar pop that lent itself to the umami of the konbu and sweetness of the vegetables and chicken. It was the perfect start!
Second course was Sashimi of Tai (sea bream) with Tororo Konbu. Doi-san wrapped the Tai in konbu for a few hours - this lightly cures the fish and also seasons it with the umami from the konbu. Tororo konbu is konbu that is shaved, flaked and lightly marinated in vinegar. His version was what I just described, but after marinating the konbu in vinegar, he then dries it and makes a powder. The fish was served on a shiso leaf liberally dusted with the tororo konbu. So tasty, the fish was perfectly seasoned, not in a salty way, but with a big umami kick that showcased the beautiful, delicate flavor of the fish.
Third course showed off Doi-san’s cooking chops with the Dashi Omelette. Egg mixed with dashi and shoyu, then cooked the traditional Japanese style, continuously rolling the egg to form a long rectangle. My wife and I make this at home for breakfast often because we love the simplicity of it. Doi-san’s was no different, expect he has a better technique and we rarely put dashi in ours at home. It was sweet yet savory and loaded with of konbu flavor.
Throughout the meal, Chris and I were blowing Doi-san up with questions about konbu, specifically why his is regarded as the best. Keep in mind, if you travel to Kyoto, they swear by Rishiri konbu, because they like the more subtle taste. Konbu Doi only sells Ma konbu which is more pronounced in flavor. When we asked him why he sells the variety of konbu he does, Doi-san proceeded to pull down a projector screen and put up some computer images of shipping lanes from 250 years ago in Japan.
Basically, Ma konbu was harvested on the southwest side of Hokkaido and then came south through the Japan Sea because the Pacific Ocean was too rough and risky to travel down, especially in wooden ships. During this period in Japan, Osaka was the economic hub, so this where most of the Ma konbu ended up. In addition, Ma Konbu became highly prized because it gave off more umami. Rishiri konbu would then make it was to places like Kyoto and later became the center of Kyoto food culture. Fun fact - due to this interesting history, Tokyo's cuisine is not as focused on konbu as is Kyoto's or Osaka's.
After our informative mid-meal break we were onto the the next course of “Vegetable with Dashi Ponzu”. The vegetable, which was like broccoli rabe, was simply steamed and served in ponzu. The bitterness of the vegetable and sweet/sour ponzu was the perfect match together.
The fifth course “Konbu dashi risotto” was amazing, I love risotto and this version was awesome. Again, Doi-san just did simple cooking and let his konbu shine in each dish. A perfectly cooked risotto, made with Japanese rice and a couple of mushrooms was excellent, he finished it with a little bit of sliced herbs. The konbu stock did wonders, it worked so well with the flavor of the rice, the mushrooms and the herbs. In fact I now cook konbu dashi risotto at my home quite often.
The final course that had konbu in it was Osaka’s very own “Dashi Takoyaki”. If you are not familiar with this dish, they are little molten balls of savory goodness with octopus inside. You can find these all over Osaka in small street stalls or shops. Doi-san’s were same but he elevated the dish by using his konbu. Generally speaking takoyaki are served with sauce, mayonnaise and katsuo bushi. Neither sauce nor katsuobushi was served this time because it really didn’t need anything else. They were full of flavor of the tako (octopus) and konbu.
In the end, this was one of those magical nights.. To have a meal made for you by a konbu master, to understand the power of konbu, to learn about the history of konbu and to enjoy yourself with friends is priceless.