Jun 082016


Today is World Oceans Day. It has been unofficially celebrated every 8 June since its original proposal in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in late 2008. It has been coordinated since 2003 by The Ocean Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group, with increasing participation each year since.


Marking the World Oceans Day, the UN has underlined these facts and figures:

— Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 per cent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume;

— Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods;

— Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at 3 trillion dollars per year or about 5 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product;

— Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions.

— Oceans absorb about 30 per cent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

— Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

— Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.

— Subsidies for fishing contribute to the rapid depletion of many fish species and prevent efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate 50 billion dollars less per year than they could.

— As much as 40 per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats.


It’s astonishing to me how cavalier people are about the health of the world’s oceans. I get the impression that people assume that the oceans are so vast that you can just dump anything you want in them and they will take care of it, instead of understanding that they need care, same as any other ecosystem. This year, the theme of World Oceans Day is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” with a specific focus on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a serious threat because it degrades very slowly, polluting waterways for a very long time. In addition, plastic pollution impacts the health of aquatic animals, not least because animals including zooplankton mistake the microbeads for food and are seriously damaged by their ingestion.

Children play on the litter-strewn beach off Jacmel

When I was a teenager, certain fish such as cod and mackerel, were treated in Britain (and elsewhere) as inexhaustible stocks for food. Overfishing has proven that perspective to be misguided. Cod and mackerel are now reaching dangerously low levels worldwide and may be unsustainable in the near future. A big part of the problem lies in limited culinary habits in some cultures. Just because a recipe calls for cod does not mean you have to buy cod. Use pollock, coley, hake, or whiting instead. These are wonderful fish, and not endangered as yet. But for today’s recipe ideas I’m going to turn from fish to seaweed.

Seaweeds are used extensively as food in coastal cuisines around the world although consumption varies widely. Seaweeds can be foraged naturally or farmed, and are generally favorable to marine ecosystems. The main potential problem with farming is the possibility of certain species becoming invasive. Seaweed has been an important part of the diet in China, Japan, and Korea since prehistoric times. Seaweed is also consumed in many traditional European societies, such as Iceland and western Norway, northern and western Ireland, Wales, and some coastal parts of South West England, as well as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is much less common in coastal France, Spain, Italy, and the United States, although interest is growing there because of the influx of Asian cuisines.


Seaweed has many health benefits because it contains abundant health-promoting materials, such as dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. It can be a good source of protein and lipids, with concentration levels varying between the types of seaweed.

I’d say have at it with whatever seaweed you can find. In China and Japan there are tons of fresh varieties readily available in supermarkets. I always had some on hand for salads or stir fries and soups when I lived in Yunnan. In the West it’s not quite so common, but you can find varieties in oriental stores as well as in conventional supermarkets if you look hard enough. Sheets of nori are pretty common. Here I’ll focus on kombu.


Kombu (昆布) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae and is widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带). Most kombu that is sold is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. With the development of cultivation technology, over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea.

During the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) in Japan, a newly developed drying technique allowed kombu to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period (1603 and 1868), 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 and 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 kombu was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.


Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (oboro kombu, tororo kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi. 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, but still not very widely acknowledged in the West. Wake up people – we have taste buds just for umami.

Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi stock. I’ve described how to make this already: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/motoori-norinaga/ .


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 can also be included when cooking dried beans to add nutrients and improve their digestibility, reputedly because the kombu cuts flatulence when the beans are eaten.

Jan 312016


Today is the birthday (1543) of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605 (a formal norm), but de facto remained in power until his death in 1616. His given name is sometimes spelled Iyeyasu, according to the historical pronunciation of he. Ieyasu was posthumously enshrined at Nikkō Tōshō-gū with the name Tōshō Daigongen (東照大権現).


Ieyasu is famed as the founder of the Edo period (江戸時代) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代), in Japan, the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country’s 300 regional daimyo. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, popular enjoyment of well known arts and culture, recycling of materials, and sustainable land and forest management. It was both a sustainable and self-sufficient society which was based on the principles of the highly practical management of finite resources. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.


In many ways, foreigners think of the culture of the Edo period as “traditional” Japanese culture — after a long period of inner conflict, the first goal of the newly established Tokugawa government under Ieyasu was to pacify, and stabilize, the country. It created a balance of power that remained (fairly) stable for the next 250 years, influenced by Confucian principles of social order. Most samurai lost their direct possession of the land: all land ownership was concentrated in the hands of about 300 daimyo. The samurai had a choice: give up their swords and become peasants, or move to the city of their feudal lord and become paid retainers. Only a few landed samurai remained in the border provinces of the north, or as direct vassals of the shogun — the 5,000 so-called hatamoto. The daimyo were put under tight control of the shogunate. Their families had to reside in Edo; the daimyo themselves had to reside in Edo for one year and in their provinces (han) for the next. This system was called sankin kōtai. This practice ended internecine wars among the daimyo.

The individual had no legal rights in Tokugawa Japan. The family was the smallest legal entity, and the maintenance of family status and privileges was of great importance at all levels of society. For example, the Edo period penal laws prescribed “non-free labor” or slavery for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696. (Click the graphic to see the full social order).


During the Tokugawa period, the social order, based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制): the samurai on top (about 5% of the population) and the peasants (more than 80% of the population) on the second level. Below the peasants were the craftsmen, and even below them, on the fourth level, were the merchants. Only the peasants lived in the rural areas. Samurai, craftsmen and merchants lived in the cities that were built around the daimyo’s castles, each restricted to their own quarter.

Outside the four classes were the so-called eta and hinin, those whose professions broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people. Hinin were only allowed inside a special quarter of the city. Other limitations on the Hinin included disallowing them from wearing robes longer than knee-length and the wearing of hats. Sometimes eta villages were not even printed on official maps. A sub-class of Hinin who were born into their social class had no option of mobility to a different social class whereas the other class of Hinin who had lost their previous class status could be reinstated in Japanese society. In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods. The eta, hinin and burakumin classes were officially abolished in 1871. Their cultural and societal impact, including some forms of discrimination, continued, however, into modern times.

edo16 edo15 edo10 edo17

Edo period cuisine is seen by many outsiders as “classic” Japanese food. It represents the height of sustainability – vegetables, pickles, rice, and fish. Livestock cultivation was largely forbidden. Even tofu was considered decadent and highly prized. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. Tofu originated in Han dynasty China some 2,000 years ago. Tofu and its production technique were introduced into Japan during the Nara period (710–794). The spread of tofu throughout Asia probably coincided with the spread of Buddhism because it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism.

Tofu has a low calorie count and relatively large amounts of protein. It is high in iron, and depending on the coagulants used in manufacturing (e.g. calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate), it can have higher calcium or magnesium content.

Tofu is incredibly versatile and amenable to all manner of flavorings. One of my favorite snacks from Japan is to warm it in dashi (bonito broth) and serve it topped with a sweet soy based paste. This was my breakfast this morning:


But have at it. Serve it in miso soup, casseroles, fried, with vegetables – you name it.

edo12 edo14 edo13 edo11