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[Iejima Miigurumashu]; A Special Salt Made by Ie Island’s Oji (Grandpa), from Sea Waters Collected on Days of the Full Moon and New Moon
post : 2020.10.13 07:00
Salt is an ingredient that we often can’t do without when cooking. Just only over a decade ago, this familiar seasoning wasn’t such a noteworthy item in the genre of local products on Okinawa, but as of late, it has certainly become a fixture. Offering a wide variety from coarse to fine powder forms, differences in tastes, and even in color, with types that are produced by combining the salt with other ingredients. At the salt specialty shop on Kokusai Street, you’ll always see crowds of people tasting the different types and looking for just the right one to meet their tastes.
Located about two hours north of Naha by car is Motobu Port, and from here, you can take a 30-minute ferry to Ie Island, one of the outer islands of Okinawa. On Ie Island, too, you’ll find a special brand of salt that’s made from the waters that surround this beautiful island. The creator of this special salt is Koichi Furugen. With his weathered skin and a slight scowl, he speaks the local language with a thick accent. Just by meeting him, you’ll feel the comfortable sense that you’ve arrived on an outer island. He got into salt-making on the island about twenty years ago.
At that time, Koichi-san was making his living as a fisherman. On an evening out with one of the older fishermen, the conversation turned to salt. The older fisherman nonchalantly said something that caught his attention.
“I’ve never seen white salt,” he had said. And that was the start of Koichi-san’s salt-making journey.
Salt wasn't white twenty years ago? Well, we’re not sure, but according to Koichi-san, salt-making began on Ie Island just after the war, but back then, the salt was slightly different than those that are available on the market today. He says the salt in those days had small particles of dirt and debris.
After hearing the older fisherman’s comment, Koichi-san left the island for the main island of Okinawa to learn the ropes on salt-making from an acquaintance. He learned how salt was made and through his eyes, got familiar with the whole process, and when he returned to his home island, he started by making a salt-making boiler.
Koichi-san built the boiler from scratch, and says, “I made a point of making it in two levels; the first pot (at the bottom) is where the salt hardens, and the heat from the first pot heats the sea water that I put in the second pot (on top). Instead of directly boiling the sea water in the second pot, I warm it up through the residual heat from the first pot, and this process makes the salt concentration higher and I can get a higher yield.”
After the sea water in the second pot is warmed up, he transfers it into the first pot to boil for about four hours. Once it starts bubbling up to make what is referred to as “crab holes”, he lowers the heat to cook it for 26 hours. He says this part of the process requires the most care, as the heat has to be controlled depending on the changes in the salt. During this process, instead of going home to rest, he stays at his salt factory and sleeps there.
Koichi-san says this was the hardest part of the whole process when he first started making salt, and he failed numerous times.
“The amount of firewood wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but the type and characteristics of the wood was also relevant. It took some time for me to see the differences and learning what type of wood was best.”
Once the salt is crystalized, he shovels the slurry into the centrifuge. After the bittern is extracted, the salt is left out to dry under the sun, and “Iejima Miigurumashu” is complete.
It took about two years before the Shimanchu (the local islanders) began to tell him that his salt was “really good”.
“At first, I didn’t think I would ever be able to sell the salt I was making, but the locals, they said that my salt wasn’t too salty and that it was delicious. I thought, ‘But it’s salt! How could it not be salty!’ But they said it was different from every day salt.”
It’s true, the Miigurumashu salt is unlike regular sea salt. It adds depth and flavor to the dishes and not just plain old saltiness. When I feel that my dish is kind of missing something, I add a pinch of Miigurumashu and it really brings the taste together.
In making Miigurumashu, Koichi-san is particular about the location and timing of collecting the sea water. He searched the waters surrounding Ie Island and found just the right spot, at an Inoh (Okinawan word for coral reef lagoon) where the salt concentration was high. He sets out on his boat on the days of a new moon and full moon to collect the sea water between the corals.
“The ebb and flow are greater during the spring tide, when the sea currents across the globe moves. The movement of the currents mixes the sea water and the tide brings in waters to the Inoh that are filled with minerals from all sorts of aquatic plants in the ocean. That’s why I head out on the new moon and full moon. It’s just something that I’m simply particular about. It’s almost superstitious, like how the fishermen set out to sea according to the lunar calendar.”
In the composition table drawn from the research conducted by Japan Food Research Laboratories, the amount of calcium found in Koichi-san”s Miigurumashu was four times greater than your regular salt. The nutrition-packed sea water that Koichi-san collects is from points that he found after painstaking searches.
The taste and quality of Miigurumashu is what it is today, born from knowledge, experience, trial and error, and a mixture of natural instincts.
“This salt can’t be produced without the help and cooperation from the islanders. The people bring the firewood and other materials that I need, and they give me feedback on the taste.”
Koichi-san shared his aspirations on how he hopes to make a new, coarse salt in the future. “There’s still much for me to do”, he says. Today, like many other days, Koichi-san is hard at work by his boiler.
[Iejima Miigurumashu] Available at: Iejima Bussan Center (Ie Island Products Center)
Address: 1st Floor of Ie Port Terminal, Kawahira, Ie Village, Kunigami, Okinawa
Hours: 7:00 to 16:00
Inquiries: 080-1705-1256 (Ms. Yumiko Furugen)
Photos & Article by Ai Matsuda, Edited by Aya Asakura