Kamaboko is a food that may not be familiar to many in Western countries. It is a food made of seasoned fish paste that is steamed or baked. Kamaboko is a specialty of many parts of Japan, and is often purchased by visitors as a representative local product.
There are many types of kamaboko, which are explored in what follows.
The History of Kamaboko
There is a theory that kamaboko first came to be when Empress Jingu (170-269 A.D.), who destroyed Kumaso and conquered Silla in the era of the Chronicles of Japan, personally led reinforcements to Baekje. There is another theory that the Empress ate kamaboko in the Ikuta Forest. The first mention of kamaboko in Japanese literature is in the Ruiju Zoyosho of the Heian period (794-1185). Wherever the truth may lay, we get a sense of how long kamaboko has been present as a part of Japanese food lore.
12 Types of Japanese Kamaboko
Steamed kamaboko is produced all over Japan, and is prepared by placing fish paste on a wooden plate before steaming.
There are largely two types of steamed kamaboko; one produced in Eastern Japan and the other in Western Japan. The kamaboko from Eastern Japan, also known as the Odawara type steamed kamaboko, is made from raw surimi such as guchi or frozen surimi such as pollock, and is formed into a thick paste and heated. Its appearance is characterized by its whiteness and luster, and its texture is based on a light taste of sweetness, elasticity, and fineness.
Western Japan's steamed kamaboko is characterized by a balance of sweetness and saltiness, using frozen surimi of guchi, eso, hamo, and pollack, and seasoned surimi that retains much of the sweetness of the fish, and thinly seasoned surimi on a thin blank plate to create a product with moderate elasticity. Some products are made by stretching cellophane over the surface of the fish paste before heating to improve its shelf life.
Of the many types of kamaboko, yaki-kamaboko (baked kamaboko) is the most common nationwide. It is said that this method is the oldest in history. In the Kansai region, the product is made from fish such as hamo (conger eel), eso, and nibe. To make the most of the flavor of the ingredients, the process of bleaching is shortened, and the fish is steamed and hardened once before the surface is browned.
Sasa-kamaboko in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, is made from a mixture of flatfish, kichiji, and cyprinid fish, formed into a wooden leaf shape, and grilled over charcoal.
Specially packaged kamaboko
There are two types of kamaboko: casing-filled kamaboko and retainer-formed kamaboko, which are designated by the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) as having relatively high shelf life.
Casing-stuffed kamaboko is made from frozen Alaska pollock surimi, and is usually filled with cheese. They are retorted at high temperature and high pressure, so they have an extremely high shelf life.
Retainer-formed fish cakes are made from seasoned surimi made from frozen Alaska pollock or guchi (a type of fish meat), which is then plate-formed, wrapped in plastic film, and placed in a fish cake mold (retainer) before steaming.
Since the shape of the fish paste is preserved, it retains its shape well and is easy to store. The main production areas are Niigata, Hokkaido, and Fukushima prefectures.
This kamaboko has a characteristic spiral pattern. It is made by spreading kombu (kelp), topping it with fresh surimi of guchi (red mullet), flying fish, or frozen surimi of pollack, then rolling it into a spiral shape and steaming it.
To preserve the sweetness of the fish, the paste is not soaked in water. The main production area is Toyama Prefecture.
Sumaki kamaboko (fish cake)
Sumaki-kamaboko is a type of fish paste made by shaping raw ground seafood such as lobster and tiger goby, or frozen ground fish such as pollock, into a cylinder shape, then evenly covering it with straw and steaming it. The surface of the fish paste is corrugated, and it is characterized by its unique elasticity and a slightly salty taste to bring out the flavor of the fish. It is produced in Imabari City in Shikoku and the Chugoku region. In some areas, it is called "tsukomaki".
In many old books, the name "tsuto kamaboko" (fish cake) is still found. The word "bracts" is interpreted to mean wheat straw. Recently, the name "stru kamaboko" may have been derived from the word "suto" (straw), or it may have been derived from "straw" (wheat straw).
Steamed and baked kamaboko
This is a type of fish cake made by steaming and then baking the surface. A typical example is Osaka's steamed fish cake affixed on a wooden plate, known as a yakiita. It is a flat kamaboko with the entire surface browned. It has a good balance of flavor and elasticity.
Fresh surimi (a combination of white fish such as guchi with strong elasticity and white fish such as hamo with a distinct flavor) or frozen surimi (such as pollock) is used for the bottom. For the top coat, glucose and mirin are added to bring out the brown color, and it is formed into an empty cedar board. After steaming, the surface of the fish paste is baked over a fire to bring out the browning.
Kamaboko without baking
In yaki-nuki kamaboko (non-baked), the molded fish paste is baked over a gas flame or other dry heat. There are two types of kamaboko: white-baked kamaboko affixed to a wooden plate and baked kamaboko without a wooden plate.
Itayaki-kamaboko is made by adding little sugar, mirin and glucose to fresh or frozen surimi, and baking it from the back (ita) side with a thin plate to avoid browning the surface.
The product is characterized by crape wrinkles on the surface, glossy whiteness, shiny cut edges, sticky elasticity, and the unique flavor of eso. The main production areas are Yamaguchi and Ehime prefectures.
In the case of yakitori kamaboko, fresh surimi from guchi, hamo or frozen surimi from pollock is used as the base, and dextrose or mirin is added to it to form the top coat.
Saiku kamaboko makes appearances at weddings in the form of gifts. The arrangements are often beautiful, with depictions of Mt. Fuji, nesting cranes, pine, bamboo, plum, sea bream and other colorful designs. The volume of production is less than in past generations, but saiku kamaboko is still made as a celebratory gift in many parts of Japan.
The most common way to make saiku-kamaboko is to color the seasoned fish paste, shape it using traditional methods and molding it before steaming.
Kiridashi kamaboko is made by piling up differently colored fish paste, similar to kintaro candy, so that the cut ends look like cranes or pine trees. Horidashi kamaboko is made by placing a number of prepared paper cutouts one by one on a board and applying different colored surimi to them to make a single picture. Shibidashi kamaboko is a type of fish cake in which colored surimi is placed in a squeeze bag with a nozzle, and then painted with a technique similar to cake decorating. Kiridashi, horidashi and shibidashi kamaboko are typical examples of crafted kamaboko.
Sasa-kamaboko is a specialty of Sendai. Unlike the Ita-kamaboko, where the kamaboko is affixed to a thin wooden plate, sasa-kamaboko is skewered on bamboo or metal skewers before baking.
There is no literature on sasa-kamaboko, and there is no definite theory on its origin. A few unverified origin stories are that the sasa (bamboo grass) of sasa-kamaboko represents a sparrow on a bamboo branch, and another theory that it came to be called sasa-kamaboko simply because its shape resembles a bamboo leaf.
Other records show that in the early Meiji period, a fish cake shop in Sendai City started selling grilled fish cake in the shape of a bamboo leaf by beating the surimi of flatfish, which was abundantly caught in Sendai Bay at that time, with the palm of his hand, which is still how sasa-kamaboko is made today.
In terms of classification, Noyaki kamaboko is sometimes considered a Chikuwa, another type of fish cake based food. But in terms of the statistical make-up of ingredients, noyaki is included in the kamaboko classification. Noyaki is a large kamaboko made mainly from flying fish (ago). The cooking process has been passed down from generations long ago from the Matsue and Izumo regions of eastern Shimane Prefecture, where it is called ago noyaki.
There is a theory that the name "Ago Noyaki" may have originated from the fact that in the old castle towns, the eaves were too low to bake kamaboko inside the houses, so they were baked outdoors.
Noyaki is characterized by its large size; the standard size is about 30 centimeters long and weighs about 500 to 600 grams, while the larger ones are about 45 centimeters long and weigh more than 1 kilogram. The fish paste is seasoned with jikidenshu and baked on all sides to seal in the flavor of the flying fish.
The raw material is fresh surimi of arrowhead or frozen surimi of pollock, then wrapped around a metal skewer and baked for 15 to 20 minutes.
There are many kinds of flavored kamaboko, such as crab flavored kamaboko, scallop flavored kamaboko, shrimp flavored kamaboko, and abalone flavored kamaboko.
Of these, crab kamaboko is the most widely produced. The raw material for crab-flavored kamaboko is mainly frozen Alaska pollock surimi, which is seasoned with glycine, crab extract and egg white to give it a crab-like flavor.
A thin strip of fish paste seasoned to look like a crab is cut into strands with a noodle blade, then converged to form a stick that resembles crab legs, and then colored.
Narutomaki is a type of fish paste with a spiral cross-section. It is said to have been named after the whirlpools of the Naruto Strait.
Seasoned surimi is spread out thinly, a little red-colored surimi is dipped in the center, rolled in from one end, and then rolled with onisudare.
The raw materials used are fresh surimi of guchi (sea bream) or frozen surimi of pollock. Although not particularly delicious, it is mainly used for decoration and is used as a garnish for chirashi-sushi, udon and ramen.
The Colorful World of Kamaboko
As one saying goes, "there are as many kamaboko histories as there are kamaboko". We quickly toured the colorful world of kamaboko. If any caught your interest, or if you ever have a chance to try a local speciality in Japan, we highly recommend it!