Even before I began to cook Japanese food I was fascinated by the subject, but more in a visual sense. Loving the presentation of Japanese food, I would often look at pictures and drool over them. Often things were pretty easy to identify, (there's some daikon radish, that's a carrot, some form of grilled fish), but at other times I was completely at a loss to figure out what something was. This was how I felt about the slices of smooth white and pink something that were often in soups and bento. It was too uniform to be something in its natural state, so it must be processed. It wasn't until much later, when I was reading a cookbook, that I found out what it was, kamaboko.
Kamaboko is a type of fishcake, made from whitefish paste. Simple enough, but since in modern times it is most often a processed food that you buy in the store, I couldn't find a way to try it myself. Fast forward to a few days ago and you find me at Ichiban, scanning the menu for something I haven't eaten before. That is when I noticed an udon soup which listed kamaboko as one of the ingredients. I almost never order soup at restaurants, but I didn't need much persuading when I saw that I would finally get to try this. Ordering the soup paid off, even if there were only three pieces of kamaboko in it. With a delightfully mellow flavor and a firm texture, I can see why these cakes are so popular in Japan.
No one is entirely sure how long kamaboko has been around, but the first record of it is found in a book from the Heian period. In this instance, kamaboko is shown on the end of a bamboo skewer, which explains why the name means cattail-spear. The book tells us that the kamaboko was being served at the nobleman Fujiwara no Tadazane's feast to celebrate his moving house. This happened in the year 1115 AD, which is why November 15th (11-15) is now Kamaboko Day.
The more familiar form of kamaboko, that which is steamed in a log shape on a cedar plank, was developed during the Edo Period. The old bamboo type was called chikuwa kamaboko (bamboo ring kamaboko) and the new type was called ita kamaboko (plank kamaboko), but eventually the original type was shortened to chikuwa and the new kept the old name, kamaboko, which no made no sense as it in no way resembles a cattail.
Early Kamaboko was made from freshwater catfish and was a delicacy. It was therefore a special feast food or a very generous gift. However, even more rare and expensive was the sea bream, a fish prized in samurai culture for its red color, that represented luck. Sea bream was an essential item for wedding feasts, but since not everyone could afford it, an imitation sea bream was used, made with kamaboko. This is still practiced in some parts of Japan today. Much like the original purpose of wedding cakes in the west, "saiku kamaboko" in decorative shapes is given to members of the wedding ceremony to take home. They then slice them up and give them to their neighbors as a way of announcing the wedding.
There are many different types of kamaboko today, for example, kanikama (imitation crab), which you've definitely eaten if you've ever had a California Roll. Another well known kamaboko is narutomaki, the round kamaboko which sports a pink spiral in its center. You see narutomaki a lot in pictures of ramen, and also in anime and manga. In fact, the thing that first got me wondering what it was was a scene in Ranma 1/2 where Ranma flicks a narutomaki at someone to challenger him to a fight (it makes more sense if you read the manga). In fact, Ranma 1/2 uses narutomaki in a lot of the artwork, so I was really interested to finally figure out what the heck it was.
All these different types of kamaboko are certainly interesting to look at, though I gather they all taste pretty much the same. However, the classic shape, and the easiest to make at home, is the half-moon with a white interior and a pink ring around the outside. And I was very excited when I found this recipe. Exactly one day after trying the kamaboko at Ichiban, I made my own. The recipe is easy to follow and more of less involves making paste out of white fish and a few seasonings. Like in the recipe, I used tilapia, but I recommend using something with less of a fishy flavor, like haddock or cod, if you're looking for a more authentic flavor.
Once I used the food processor to get a thick and sticky paste (which was a total pain since my food processor is a piece of junk), I formed it into a log. Since I didn't have a cedar plank I had to improvise with a piece of parchment paper. The pink ring was achieved with a little food coloring. I cooked the log in a bamboo steamer and then soaked it in ice water to chill it completely. Kamaboko is intended to be eaten chilled, unless it's in a soup. We ate it with hot rice, soy sauce, and wasabi. I think the recipe needs a little bit of tweaking, since it isn't quite the same as the processed variety, but I am completely willing to try and perfect it. So look out for updates.
My question for you today is, have you ever had kamaboko? Let me know in the comment section below!
Until next time, enjoy the fish!
P.S. Another interesting piece of kamaboko fact, which I forgot to add to the post, is that the oldest kamaboko company was founded around 1550. It's still operating in Kanagawa prefecture. It doesn't quite make it into our list of super old Japanese companies, but it's still pretty impressive.