Sea Salt 塩
There is no food being made that better reflects the proliferation of excellent products, regional variety, artisanal dynamism, and benefits to Japan’s food culture resulting from the country's craft food revival than sea salt.
All Japanese salt is sea salt, which is why the word is simply shio, or salt. Together with the other two oceanic ingredients fish and seaweed, salt forms the “holy trinity” that is the backbone of Japanese cuisine. Its fundamental use in cooking mirrors its deep cultural role in Japanese life as a ward against evil and bearer of good fortune. Salt is the main agent to preserve foods and primary seasoning in cooking to capture a food’s seasonal freshness at a moment in time. Japan’s mineral-rich and umami-laden sea salts are also key ingredients to help dishes be light yet flavorful and for making Japan’s two great fermented salty seasonings—soy sauce and miso—for dishes that rely on a heartier flavor. Lastly, salt is used to finish foods to make them appealing and unique. It is the source of life in Japanese cuisine.
A salt-making renaissance is underway in Japan, triggered in 2002 when the government deregulated salt production, ending a government-run monopoly during which salt was made as a simple, all-purpose commodity for nearly 100 years. The move was part of a package of reforms to privatize national industries and decentralize the public sector’s role in the economy in order to restore economic growth in general and help revitalize the countryside in particular. Salt-making houses have sprung up all along the coasts and islands of Japan’s vast archipelago, and today salt makers are making hundreds of different types of salt that are the best they can be in terms of taste of place, overall flavor, honesty of production, and use in the kitchen and at the table.
Japan’s salts are some of the most interesting in the world. Different sources of seawater and types of harvesting methods create myriad combinations of taste, texture, consistency, color, and even aroma. There are salts with an ethereal freshness for the most delicate of foods or a powdery sweetness to complement the richest. The bright intensity and audible crunch of other salts serves to accompany fruit and vegetables at the peak of their flavor, prime seafoods and meats, and luxurious desserts. And there are dry as well as moist salts that are ideal for cooking because of their spice and herb-like tastes or a mellow roundness that is characteristic of the flavor of refined Japanese cuisine. The list goes on to include an inspired range of flavored specialty salts.
One would like to believe that the government’s deregulation of salt making was part of its program to promote Japanese cuisine as a cultural asset by restoring the quality and flavor to a key seasoning that underpins it. In any event, as far as salt is concerned, this is what happened. Salt is once again being appreciated for itself rather than merely as an ingredient. And the enticing array of salts available is fostering a trend to healthier, simpler seasoning. It is being featured in a variety of new salt-based dishes and other artisanally-made food products and increasingly used as a light yet flavorful finishing for foods. Equally important, salts are adding zest to local economies as they have become one of the most popular souvenirs and gifts to bring back from a trip to the countryside as a taste of place.
Salt in the Doldrums
While salt is essential to good cooking everywhere in the world, in Japan it is the rock on which the country’s Pacific Island cuisine is built. It was not until fairly recently in Japan’s history that the diet of most Japanese people was much more than salt-dried fish, salt-cured vegetables and, of course, rice. Salt was also the country’s most important condiment until Japan’s medieval era (1185-1600), and together with some type of citrus or fruit vinegar—other simple, natural seasonings—they were the flavorings most often used on foods. Salt’s extremely important role in Japan’s food culture was due, in part, to the abundance of sea salt available. Composed of over 6,800 islands, there is no town or village in Japan that is more than 140 miles from the coast.
At first salt was simply made by boiling seawater down in small clay pots until all that remained were salt crystals. Then Japan’s ancient salt makers learned how to make salt more flavorfully and beneficially from a combination of seaweed and seawater. Called moshio, these salts were laced with healthy minerals and tasty umami derived from the seaweed. There is evidence from archaeological sites that pre-historic salt makers experimented with different kinds of seaweeds over centuries to create moshio salts that provided the best flavor and most nutrients, making them Japan’s first complex, artisanally-made seasoning. Because moshio salts enrich food, as well as enhance its flavor, they can also be considered an important early, if not the principal, development in the sophistication of Japan’s nature- and ingredient-oriented cooking.
However, starting in the 7th century, salt’s flavor and culinary evolution began to deteriorate. After having been made for nearly 2,000 years, the diverse and uniquely flavorful moshio salts were replaced by a more uniform type of sea salt made using enden, or clay pan salt fields—an innovation learned from China. A slightly bitter-tasting type of gray salt due to trace land minerals in it, enden salts enabled more efficient, large scale salt production by first concentrating the seawater through air and wind evaporation on large open salt fields and then boiling the dense seawater to make salt.
Over time, a decline in the status of salt, in addition to its flavor, occurred in line with the country’s shift to a land- and grain-based society, influenced by Chinese social models and tastes. Wheat and soy bean farming were also transplanted from China from the 7th century onward, as were the salty, earthy-tasting seasonings made from them—soy sauce and miso. By the Edo period (1615-1867), they had eclipsed salt’s use to flavor food as tastes changed and heartier, more sauce-based dishes became popular. While large amounts of salt were needed to make soy sauce and miso, salt on its own was mainly used to season food when cooking. Salt had moved several shelves down in the Japanese pantry and had become a basic ingredient produced as a commodity.
But salt had not lost its commercial value—that continued to increase, which is what ultimately led the government to nationalize salt making. During the Edo period, Japan’s national cuisine as we know it today emerged, and a large, homogenous market for food developed following the unification of the country for the first time in centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate. Urbanization and a new, affluent and food-loving merchant class further fueled demand for salt and salt-based seasonings. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan expanded and took control of Hokkaido in 1855, annexed the islands of Okinawa in 1872, and began to look farther afield overseas. By 1905, when Japan’s salt monopoly was put in place, the government take-over was ostensibly to ensure a stable and cheap supply of salt to power the large, rapidly-growing nation. It was also to get a share of the salt revenues (at the time to finance the Russo-Japanese War of 1905) as Japan’s salt merchants, which included a large group of manufacturers, processors, financiers, traders, and distributors, were making fortunes. Their impressive warehouse-residences can still be seen in the historic districts of country towns along the coasts of the Seto Inland Sea, like the enden salt-making center of Takehara in Hiroshima prefecture and the salt trading town of Kurashiki in Okayama prefecture, which is located at the start of one of the Salt Roads that brought salt to the country’s interior.
In the 20th century, the rise of processed foods and its heavy use of salt and the lure of greater salt profits drove the government to continually find ways to make salt as efficiently and cheaply as possible. By the end of the century, all salt in Japan was produced using the ion-exchange membrane electrodialysis method, a highly mechanized and sterilizing way of using electrical power to extract salt from seawater. Salt was virtually all sodium chloride, and it all tasted the same.
Salt’s decline over the centuries also reflected the marginalization of Japan’s ancient maritime way of life and suppression of its native Pacific Island culture, including its food, under a layer of agricultural and land-oriented political structures and attitudes. Under the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1867) rice was made king, and was designated the standard measure of wealth and basis for taxation. Rice production became the guideline for setting the administrative districts of the country. The quasi-independent dominions of sea lords who ruled over many of the islands and much of the shoreline of Japan were ended, and the country turned inward. Overseas trade was greatly restricted, and Japan’s capital was moved to Edo, a city that faced the country’s historical backwater—the Pacific Ocean—and away from its traditional maritime centers of the Sea of Japan and Seto Inland Sea. The seas surrounding Japan came to be seen as strange and forbidden places, valued only as industrial sources of food and centers of food production.
When it deregulated salt making in 2002, the government not only restored the vitality of salt in Japan’s food culture, it also triggered a renewal of the country’s maritime way of life. Many of the new artisanal salt makers working on the islands and along the coasts of Japan today have moved there from Japan’s big cities or are locals who have left jobs in manufacturing and services to make their lives more traditionally from the sea.
"Merroir"—The Salty Tastes of Japan's Seas
There are two fundamental challenges to making salt in Japan that have, in fact, been blessings. The first is the lack of any land deposits of salt, so salt makers must rely on the sea. The second challenge is the country’s generally rainy, humid climate, which makes it difficult to impossible to extract salt from seawater by simple sun and wind evaporation. Instead, some type of skilled harvesting method is required. Combined, these two conditions have given rise to a trove of naturally-made and hand-crafted salts with relatively high amounts of beneficial minerals that are also enriched by the sea’s deeply flavorful umami.
Japan’s salt makers have excellent seawater resources to work with. The country is endowed with five seas that stretch in a wide 1,750-mile arc across its archipelago of mountainous islands. Each sea has distinctly different tastes due to geography, climate, mineral content, marine life, and salinity. To best capture the essences of these seas, salt makers are seeking out the purest possible sources of seawater—remote beaches and islands, hidden coves and deepwater ports, and from well offshore and deep below the sea’s surface. In the north, they are making umami-rich salts from the cold, kelp-laden waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. To the west, the pristine deep seawater of the Sea of Japan is yielding bright, mineral-tasting salts. Going south, there are the nutrient-rich, milder salts from the Seto Inland Sea and the slightly sweet salts from the warm tropical waters of the East China Sea. Last are the exotic salts being made along Japan’s eastern shores and on remote islands from the waters of the Philippine Sea, which is the deepest, most volcanic, and seismically active sea in the world.
Sea of Okhotsk —The distinguishing feature of Japan’s northern-most sea is that it is awash with konbu—a ’meaty’ edible kelp that encapsulates the best of what the oceans of the world have to offer. It has high concentrations of calcium, potassium, iodine, and salt, and is the world’s richest source of umami.
Sea of Japan — Surrounded by the mountainous shores of Japan, Korea, and Russia, the sheltered deep-sea culture of the Sea of Japan is unique. Runoff of freshwater and land minerals is limited, sea vegetation hardly grows in the deep, cold waters of its shoreline, and there are no tides to disturb this pristine environment. Instead, there is the rare oceanic phenomenon of an upwelling of pure, mineral-rich deep-sea water caused by the warm Tsushima Current coming from the south during the winter months.
Seto Inland Sea — A mild, stable climate, abundant marine life, and generous fresh water runoff from the high mountain ranges encircling the Seto Inland Sea create a rich brine that enlivens and balances the high salinity of this shallow, nearly land-locked sea. The sea has been the locus of Japanese salt-making for centuries.
East China Sea — The warm, salty tropical waters bathing the islands of Okinawa are loaded with minerals and, because of their remoteness, are clean and pure. The salts harvested from this seawater are among the best in the country. A hot, sunny climate enables more natural salt harvesting by sun and wind evaporation than elsewhere in Japan.
Philippine Sea — Lying to the west of the Okinawan Islands and enclosing Japan’s small, isolated islands in the western Pacific, the Philippine Sea is an exotic and mysterious sea. It is floored by the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans, where new forms of life are being found among the steam vents of this very seismically and volcanically active region. The sea is also home to about 500 species of hard and soft corals, 20% of the world’s known shellfish species, and a diverse range of fish that thrive in its deep, dense waters.
Salt Alchemists—Crystalizing the Japanese Pantry
Since the government’s removal of controls regarding salt making in 2002, salt makers have complete freedom to unleash their creativity and craftsmanship. Salt makers have revived, and even improved upon, traditional salt harvesting methods while also innovating new ones. What their methods have in common is slow, carefully-tended processes to retain as much of the sea’s minerals, umami, and unique flavor characteristics as possible and to create the optimum crystal, the size and shape of which are key factors in salt’s ultimate flavor and use. For example, a larger, coarse crystal amplifies the bright flavor of Sea of Japan salts, while medium to fine grain crystals aid the cooking abilities of Seto Inland Sea salts. Another important consideration is whether the salt is moist or dry, as this also affects its flavor and use.
Generally harvested as naturally and sustainably as possible in small batches, there are several basic methods Japan's salt makers use to make salt, which are sometimes combined to create truly unique and flavorful salts.
Traditional Sea Salt
The oldest and most basic method of making salt entails concentrating seawater, then heating it to crystalize salt, and finally drying the salt to remove unwanted bittern. These three steps leave a lot of room for creativity and variation. A hard boil in the second step will yield fine grain salts while a slow simmer encourages the growth of larger, coarser crystals. Completely drying the salt in step three gives salt a rounder flavor, but many salt makers choose to leave their salt moist to heighten its flavor, preserve its mineral content, and make it easier to cook with. Salt makers in the most sunny, southern parts of Japan also incorporate air and wind evaporation into their process, enabling them to better fine-tune the size and shape of the crystal.
The results are salts, especially those made on the Okinawan Islands, in a range of white color, textures, and flavor, from powdery snow and slushy opaque sherbet to fine dry grains and gleaming translucent crystals, with each type designed to maximize the taste characteristics of its seawater and achieve a special purpose in cooking.
Use: Healthy, natural, and flavorful, Japanese sea salts are great for preserving and cooking and also finishing foods with their magically different crystals.
Millennium ago, Japanese salt makers began making salt using both seaweeds and seawater, and moshio salts are among the most unique, complex, diverse, and versatile of Japanese salts. The type of local seaweed used adds to their richness and diversity, and makes them a true and unique taste of sea place.
Instead of concentrating seawater, the moshio salt making process begins by drying seaweed in the open or burning it to ash to concentrate its flavor. The moshio salt maker’s focus is on the next step: very slowly and carefully simmering the seaweed in seawater to draw out its salt and retain as much of the seaweed’s distinct taste and mineral content as possible. The final step is removing excess moisture, and sometimes leaving little bits of seaweed in the salt. As little is known about ancient moshio salt-making, today’s salt makers have filled in the gaps with their own artistry, and moshio salt-making has come to include a range of variations in drying, simmering, and drying, as well as when the seaweed is introduced into the process.
With compound flavor and seasoning abilities, moshio salts are essentially the Japanese pantry in crystal form. Depending on the type of seawater, seaweed, and harvesting process, their tastes vary from spicy, sour, and herby to round and sweet. All are loaded with minerals and umami. The long, slow process of brewing seaweed and seawater together sometimes even results in a slight fermentation, putting moshio salts on a par with Japan’s other great fermented seasonings of soy sauce and miso.
Moshio salt crystals range from flower and flake through to coarse and fine grain, and they come in an attractive range of colors, including shades of green, purple, brown, gray, and black. Some have herbal and spice-like aromas.
Use: Moshio salts are great cooking salts because of their fortified ability to enhance the flavor of food. They are also exceptional finishing salts due to their attractive appearance and full flavor, and they are a perfect replacement for other, heavier condiments, when a dry, less intrusive flavoring is desired.
Enden salts are essentially gray salts, or sel gris, although in Japan they would be called beige salt, or sel beige, because they tend to have a warm, light brown color. Enden salt-making was the dominant form of salt farming during the Edo period (1603-1868) on up to 1971. They are made by harvesting salt from seawater using clay pans and sloping terraces. Although they were among Japan’s first large-scale food manufacturing efforts, their production today is considered artisanal given the labor and skill required to make them.
There are three types of enden salts. Agehama, or "raise to the beach," enden salt is made by the very laborious process of bringing seawater onto land in buckets by hand and distilling and rendering the salt through prepared clay salt plans. Today agehama enden salt is made at only one location in Japan—on the Okunoto salt farm on the Noto Peninsula—where it is preserved as an Authentic Cultural Property. Irihama, or "flood the beach," enden salt involves flooding clay salt pans taking advantage of the tides. Both processes entail repeated raking and re-saturating the concentrated sandy brine with new seawater and finally boiling to crystalize the salt.
The ryuka enden, or "sloping salt-terrace," method of making salt replaced most other forms of enden salt making in 1955 and was used until 1971. It includes streaming the seawater down vertical racks of bamboo branches, called shijoka, after it has been concentrated by air and wind evaporation in sloping clay pans. A resurgence of this kind of enden salt-making is underway, and Japan’s coastline, especially around the Seto Inland Sea, is once again dotted with ryuka enden salt-making workshops.
Enden salts have a salty, mineral quality in terms of taste and texture because of the trace land minerals absorbed and finer grains formed in the process of making them. Ryuka enden salts can also have a vegetal taste and aroma. Enden salts tend to be unrefined, and as a result, they are often moist salts with a slightly sharp taste. The dry and roasted versions are the most mild.
Use: Enden salts are good organic, mineral-rich, all-purpose cooking salts. They can also be used to finish foods if you like a slightly bitter taste.
Shinkai, or salt made with deep seawater, is a compelling new flavor among Japanese salts, and represents a technological breakthrough in salt harvesting, following research into the properties of deep-sea currents made by the Japanese government starting in 1985. Compared to surface water, deep seawater is saltier and richer in minerals and other nutrients, such as nitrates, silicates, and phosphates. It is also the purest because it is not exposed to air and land pollutants and does not easily mix with other ocean water because it is denser and colder. Deep seawater occurs below 200 meters and places where deep-seawater is thrust upward by currents or mountains on the sea floor. This eliminates the Seto Inland Sea and most of the East China Sea, and shinkai salts mainly come from Sea of Japan and Philippine Sea waters.
Given the unique taste characteristics of deep seawater, one wonders whether it should be considered another sea flowing around Japan rather than a harvesting method. But given the mastery involved in extracting the salt without compromising its mineral benefits through excessive processing or its purity by exposing it to potentially polluted air, how it is processed is as important to the final product as the source.
Shinkai salts are a salt lover’s salt. The taste is, not surprisingly, intense. It is salty, but in an exciting, delicious, and satisfying way. The flavor is amplified by shinkai salt’s brilliant icy-white color, mineral-richness, and burst of flavor on the tongue because the crystals are typically medium to large-sized due to the care taken not to over-process them.
Use: Shinkai salts have a great deal of presence and are invigorating when used as a premium cooking salt, and highly decorative and exciting as a finishing salt. They are sometimes made as moshio and flavored speciality salts, extending their flavor and possible uses.
A tradition of roasting salt, known as yakishio, developed during the Edo period (1603-1868) mainly as a way to preserve salt. Although salt lasts forever, it can leach water from the environment over time and become soggy and unpleasant. Roasting also gave the sharp enden salts of the time a milder flavor.
Use: Being very dry, yakishio salt is not good for cooking, but instead is an excellent, very sprinkable table salt.
Flavored Specialty Salts
Using any type of Japanese salt as a base, salt makers are taking salt to the next level by flavoring their salts with other high-quality ingredients. Some of the best flavored salts fall into the following categories:
- Salts that incorporate the best of a particular region—coral salt from Okinawa, fish salts from the Sea of Japan, citrus salts from Shikoku Island, vegetable salts from Shizuoka prefecture, and green tea salt from Nara are examples.
- Salts that combine other seasonings into one dry compound—dashi salt, soy salt, and sour plum salts, among others.
- Salts that add an exotic flavor—smoked salt, red wine salt, chili salt; the list is endless.
Use: Flavored salts should be added at the end when cooking to deepen or accent the flavor of a dish. But the real fun is at the table when they allow everyone to create their own uniquely flavored dishes.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Where to Buy
There are many places to buy salts both in the countryside and in Tokyo and other major cities. Don’t think of Japanese salts as only specialty or finishing salts; their quality and flavor will enhance the nutritiousness, as well as flavor of your cooking, and even a small packet of salt will go a long way. Hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how reasonably priced they are. A 100-gram (3.5-oz.) package ranges in price from $4-10, with an average price of around $5.
In the Countryside
If you’re traveling in the countryside, locally-made craft salts can be found in all of Japan’s 43 prefectures except for the 8 that are land-locked. You can find them at supermarkets and, more reliably, at michi no eki, which are marketplaces alongside main roads and in town centers that feature regional food as well as other crafts. In addition to food products, they sell fresh and prepared food and have restaurants. Michi no eki are great places to spend time at, and by walking the aisles you can get a good sense of the region’s cuisine. An umi no eki is a seafront marketplace, typically located at a ferry boat terminal or base of a bridge.
Prefecture Antenna Shops — In Tokyo, many prefectures also have what are called “antenna” shops where you can buy pretty much everything you would find at a regional michi no eki—all kinds of food and drink, as well as traditional crafts and souvenirs. Most are conveniently located in the main shopping districts of Nihonbashi, Yurakucho, and Ginza. In 2016 for the first time, the Japan Center for Regional Development produced an English language map featuring the 15 largest antenna shops, which is available at most shops. For others, simply look them up by prefecture on the web to find the one that is home to the salt you’re looking for or is a region you'd like to taste.
Ma-Suya — To browse, sample, and buy from a wide range of salts, the salt specialty store Ma-Suya is the place to go. It features over 600 salts from all over Japan as well as other parts of the world. Based in Naha, Okinawa, Ma-Suya has two locations in Tokyo:
- Fujiwara Bldg. 1F, 1-7-3 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0045
Open 11:00—21:00 daily, including Sunday. Tel: +81 (03) 6447 4150
- Solamachi 4F East Yard, 1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 131-0045
Open 11:00—21:00 daily, including Sunday. Tel: +81 (03) 5809 7560
The stores have a salt sommelier on hand to help you. The Solamachi shop is located near the Sky Tree and also the Tobacco & Salt Museum, enabling you to combine a visit to Ma-Suya with sightseeing and a tour of the museum’s fascinating exhibit about salt and the history of salt-making in Japan.
Department Stores — The food halls in the basements of the large department stores, including Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya, carry both craft salts as well as more traditional sea salts.
How to Enjoy
Given the many possible combinations of seawater, seaweeds and other flavor enhancers, harvesting methods, and craft of the salt maker, there is practically a salt for each specific use when cooking, as well as a fun, beautiful, and delicious range to choose from to finish dishes. Choosing which salt to use has a lot to do with personal preference; whether you like a sharp salt or a more mellow rounded one. Still, certain salts perform better for different uses and types of foods. Here are some basic guidelines for choosing a salt to enhance your skill and creativity when using it.
Taste: The basic tastes of Japanese salts are a spectrum from salty, slightly bitter, and sharp, or sharpu, to sweet, mellow, and round, or maroyaka. The type and amount of organic matter left in the salt, as well as the salt-making process, greatly influence salt’s taste. Moshio salts have the broadest range of tastes, while enden salts tend to be slightly bitter because of their trace land minerals and typical moistness. Shinkai salt’s taste is a pure bright saltiness. In terms of sea taste, a rule of thumb is that Japanese salts are richer in umami as you go from north to south and sweeter going from south to north.
Texture: Japanese salts fall into six broad crystal categories: powder, fine grain, medium grain, coarse mixed grain, flake, and flower, or hana no shio. The size and shape of a salt’s crystal play a big role in its flavor because different crystals melt at different speeds. Larger, denser crystals taste less salty because they melt more slowly on the tongue, while smaller grains and delicate crystals like flake and flowers intensify a salt’s taste because they melt faster. For example, a larger grain moshio salt will have a richer taste and a flower shinkai salt an intensely salty taste. Japan’s many coarse mixed grain salts offer the interesting combination of an initial burst of flavor followed by a lingering finish.
Consistency: Consistency also affects taste and, importantly, how salt acts when cooking and eating. Moist salts, obviously, are going to melt faster, intensifying their taste. And being moist means that all their bittern has not been removed, making them a bit more bitter. But what’s also important is that they tend to melt into foods more quickly and also pull out less liquid from foods, making them good for baking, seasoning meats before roasting, and harmonizing long-cooked soups, stews, and braised dishes.
Dry salts, on the other hand, have a diminished taste and are better at absorbing liquid. They are great for bringing out the sweetness of foods when prepping seafood, blanching and roasting vegetables, and topping juicy fresh fruits and creamy desserts. They are also good table salts because of their sprink-ability. Roasted salts, though, are so dry they have a reduced ability to pull out liquids, making them mostly an all-purpose table salt.
Color: Pure salt is clear, but in fact comes in various shades of white depending on the number of facets of the crystal. Salts that are enriched with organic matter have a range of colors, which enhances their flavor appeal when both cooking and eating, given that people eat with their eyes first.
Aroma: Pure salt has no aroma, but, again, Japanese salts sometimes do; an earthy or mineral aroma that might smell like spice or herb. The aroma is faint, but present enough to heighten the flavor of your food when used as a finishing salt.
While you may ultimately discover three to five salts that you like and meet your needs, don’t constrain yourself. Keep tasting and experimenting, especially with finishing salts.
- Salt keeps forever. Just seal it to prevent it from leaching moisture from the air. If it does, use it for cooking.
- Remember that the volume of salt isn’t transferable across different types of salts. One teaspoon of fine grain salt is going to be a lot saltier than one teaspoon of flake salt. Weight is a more appropriate way to measure usage, but there aren’t readily available scales to register such small amounts.
- Do as the Japanese do and keep a pile of your favorite salt in a small container on a kitchen shelf to ward off evil and bring good fortune.