Kamaboko, the Star of Year-End and New Year's Feasting
In the last column of the year for The Japan Times, I’ve written about the symbolic meaning of the many items in osechi ryouri, the traditional New Year’s feast eaten in Japan: Savor the symbolism at New Year’s.
I’ve written about osechi on this site previously also - Everything in osechi ryouri, where I also confess that I don’t actually like most of the items in osechi that much personally! I’ve also written about toshikoshi soba or year-ending (or year-bridging) soba, which is eaten on New Year’s Eve.
One item that’s often included in both toshikoshi soba and osechi ryouri is kamaboko (蒲鉾 or かまぼこ), a rubbery and firm fish cake that also makes its appearance year-round in everything from ramen to bentos. While in its natural state it’s a creamy white in color, it often comes dyed, pink being the most common coloring. It’s also the forerunner of other types of food that have become more famous around the world.
Since red and white (kōhaku) is a very lucky color combination in Japan, alternating pink and white slices of kamaboko are seen often in osechi.
This is an ad from a high-end kamaboko maker, which puts gold leaf on their special occasion kamaboko. The brown color comes from lightly grilling the outside of a formed kamaboko cake.
Many regions of Japan has their version of kamaboko. It used to be made with white freshwater fish as well as sea fish, but nowadays it’s mainly made with white sea fish such as cod and various cod substitutes, together with some kind of starch - usually potato starch, but sometimes other starches from corn or wheat are used too. Here’s a type of kamaboko made in Toyama prefecture on the Japan Sea coast, which combines the white paste (called surimi) with konbu seaweed. The green coloring is pretty unusual too.
Most kamaboko has shaped like a half-moon or demi-circle on top of a small piece of wood. As a child I used to collect these bits of woods (called kamaboko-ita) and use them for school projects. I even once made a small bookshelf out of kamaboko-ita for my desk, although it and the desk are long gone now. Kamaboko comes in many other shapes too.
When red and white kamaboko are formed into a rolled spiral shape before steaming, it’s called naruto or narutomaki. You may have seen slices of naruto floating on top of a bowl of ramen. Some instant cup noodles even include freezedried versions. This page has a good picture of naruto. I don’t think the anime Naruto comes from narutomaki though - naruto also means ‘whirling water’.
Kamaboko is also the forerunner of crab sticks or fake crab meat, which is called kanikama or “crab kamaboko” in Japan. The same type of surimi or fish paste is flavored to ressemble crab, extruded into crabmeat like strands, dyed and formed into sticks. Kanikama was first made by a fish processing company in Ishikawa prefecture, which neighbors Toyama prefecture on the Japan Sea coast, in 1973. Apparently it was never meant to be faux crab meat, but a different kind of kamaboko. I think that as long as you think of it as a kind of fish sausage and not as well, imitation crab, it’s fine. But since it’s become so popular worldwide there’s a lot of really bad crab stick out there, so you need to shop around.
Getting back to kamaboko: Since it is so flexible and rubbery in texture, it can be cut into all kinds of decorative forms. This image is from the Kibun site. (Kibun is a major kamaboko and other processed foods manufacturer.)
Indeed, decorative cutting of kamaboko is the forerunner of another kind of decorative food cutting that has become known worldwide these days - the decoratively cut weiner sausage.
The simplest ways to enjoy kamaboko are to just drop a slice or two on top of a bowl of hot noodle soup, or to enjoy slices like sashimi with plain rice. It is not something you can make easily at home (believe me, I’ve tried) so if you have a Japanese grocery store, buy a half-moon pack, slice it up and enjoy!