• The Japanese seasoning makes everything instantly delicious. (Food Safari Water)Source: Food Safari Water
Created in Japan as a calcium supplement, furikake is the seasoning that makes everything from rice to pasta taste great.
Lee Tran Lam

24 Jul 2020 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2020 - 11:10 AM

Saori Kojima grew up in Takikawa City in Hokkaido, Japan, where the temperature would often reach a bone-freezing -20 degrees Celsius. The landscape was blanketed in snow for half the year. 

"Everyone starts skiing around three years old because, otherwise, there is nothing else to do in winter," she says.

"My mum used to make me rice balls to take with me – with a sprinkle of furikake, or it was mixed into the rice. Furikake is so essential because it makes boring cold rice taste so much better!"

It's true – the Japanese seasoning makes everything instantly delicious. You'll see it sprinkled on top of rice, but you can also shower it over vegetables, fish and soups. People even add it to a wafu (Japanese-style) pasta for a strong savoury hit, or dust it over popcorn, to enhance that salty flavour.

The name, furikake, translates as "sprinkle over" in Japanese, and the seasoning's shape-shifting ability to take on so many different flavours and forms is what makes it so versatile.

When Japanese pharmacist Suekichi Yoshimaru created it a century ago, furikake began as a savoury mix of seaweed, sesame seeds and powdered fish bones. He called his product "Gohan no Tomo" (friend of rice) and furikake is essentially that – it's a flavour-building ally that supercharges any form of rice it encounters, from onigiri rice balls to plain bowls of steamed rice.

"Furikake is so essential because it makes boring cold rice taste so much better!"

The pharmacist's original goal, though, was to help people deal with calcium deficiencies – a prevalent problem at the time – and furikake was used during World War II as a calcium supplement.

Kojima says, "I studied health science at university in Hokkaido, so I know wakame seaweed is high in calcium and good for your bones."

But the seasoning didn't become a pantry staple until 1948, when Japanese food company Nissin began mass-producing furikake, and it took off as a hassle-free way to give your rice a quick nutritional and flavour boost.

"I have seen some very unusual ones in Hokkaido," Kojima says. Genghis Khan (lamb marinade) furikake, shiokara (fermented squid and guts in salt) furikake, and Hokkaido potato butter furikake – she's likely seen it all. But Kojima prefers the simpler kinds, without additives or artificial flavour enhancers. 

"It can be hard to find a good 100 per cent natural furikake, so I decided to make it myself," she says.

It's now part of her Saori Premium Japanese Sauce range, produced from her Mount Dandenong home in Victoria.

"I use wakame seaweed from Hokkaido, because a cold climate produces a better tasting product," she says. Kojima also sprinkles dried Asian greens (such as bok choy and choy sum), Australian sea salt and sesame seeds into each bottle of her furikake.

Like all her condiments, her product is vegan.

"Normally, Japanese sauces and seasonings contains bonito fish. I make my products with high-quality seaweeds, so everybody can enjoy healthy tasty Japanese meals at home," she says. "Kelp and other seaweeds have a grading system, like wine. I only use high-grade ones, which are packed with umami flavours, so I don't need to use bonito."

Angie Prendergast-Sceats' furikake is partly inspired by her seaweed-collecting haul. The Sydney-based owner of Angie's Food draws on four kinds of algae – a local wakame, Japanese nori and kombu and a gamtae seaweed from Korea – to flavour her yuzu furikake.

The dominant yuzu (Japanese citrus) note was accidental: she'd sourced the fruit from Food By Fiat, a small NSW grower, to produce a shrub (vinegar-based cordial) and didn't want to waste the leftover pulp and skin. After trying "the most amazing seaweed from Table181", she decided to combine the dehydrated yuzu skin with algae to create her own furikake. To give it complexity and heat, she added three different kinds of sesame seeds – including a wasabi-flavoured kind – as well as togarashi chillies she'd dried after making a special fermented hot sauce over summer. It all went into her high-powered blender and came out as a zesty, well-spiced seasoning. 

"I'm now working on a Mediterranean flavoured one, which sounds like fusion at its worst – but again, I was inspired by the bergamot skin I'm using for a shrub!" she says. This citrus-inspired version will be an apt follow-up to her yuzu furikake, which sold out quickly.

"I think I've tried over 20 different types of furikake," she says. Prendergast-Sceats has visited a Tokyo store that specialises in the product, and recalls pickled cherry blossom, cured egg and ume versions. She's been buying furikake from Asian grocers for years. One standout furikake purchase takes her back to Kyoto, where some scattered seasoning pushed a simple serve of fresh tofu to the next level.

Taka Teramoto from Sydney's Kuro remembers eating "a lot" of furikake while growing up in Tokyo. "Even if you only have a bowl of white rice, with furikake it becomes a dish," says the chef.

He believes he's eaten every available kind of furikake available in Japan's supermarkets.

"I've tried egg, salmon, pickled plum, wasabi, beef, curry, instant noodle flavour and more," he says. There's a premium kind made with shiitake mushrooms, pine nuts and bonito that's a current favourite.

Like Prendergast-Sceats, the furikake he makes is inspired by waste-free thinking.

"When we first opened Kuro, I asked my head chef Nobu Maruyama to make something sustainable using leftover vegetables and he came up with a furikake made from various vegetables that we normally throw away – outer layer of skins, hard parts or parts that don't look as pretty."

Dried leek, carrot and kale scraps are turned into a seasoning, and served with the wagyu beef tsukune. "We wanted a concentrated flavour of the vegetables, which act like salt in the dish."

When Teramoto opens the Teramoto Chef's Table for eight diners at Kuro's restaurant complex, he'll turn spent tea leaves – from a brew he will welcome diners with – into a furikake that guests can take home.

While Kojima has a lifelong love of savouring the seasoning with rice balls and Prendergast-Sceats suggests using it like dukkah, for Teramoto, furikake is great at its simplest: it's "best on hot steamed rice", he says.

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