Japan is a country that has a knack for the more exotic things you can find in this world. It can be seen in many aspects of their culture like the edgy fashion you can see in Harajuku or the several shrines and temples that pay homage to all kinds of Japanese spirits and kami. This passion for exotic things can also be seen in their cuisine and in Japan, you can find a specific variant of seaweed that exemplifies this passion. In English, it goes by many names like green caviar or sea grapes but the Japanese name given to it by the farmers that cultivate it is “Umibudou”.
An Overview of the Japanese Sea Grapes
Scientifically, this plant is called Caulerpa lentillifera and it is a species of green algae that usually grows in the coastal regions of the Indo-Pacific. As mentioned earlier, it is known by names like umibudou, green caviar, and sea grapes but it has many more names that originate from different places in the world. In the Philippines, it is also known as lato, guso, and arosep. In certain parts of Malaysia, this plant is known as latok. Despite its many names, it remains to be the seaweed variant that is known and loved for its soft and uniquely succulent texture.
Usually, seaweeds grow like any other plant. They have a stem and leaves grow out of the stem. In the case of the umibudou, it still has a stem but instead of leaves growing out of the stem, little bubbles grow in replacement of the leaves. It is for this reason that it is known as sea grapes because the bundle of little bubbles it possesses make it look like regular grapes on a vine. Unlike regular grapes that are sweet when they burst in your mouth, the little green bubbles of the sea grapes give the consumer a salty taste of the southern sea it grows out of.
The breaking of these little bubbles even has a term in Japanese which is called “puchi-puchi”. This term is used in reference to the popping of the bubbles because it supposedly recreates the sound of the burst of a small air bubble. Not a lot of foods provide this sensation to the mouth which is why Japanese gourmets love using it to elevate the texture of certain dishes for their customers.
It was stated earlier that this particular plant grows in the coastal regions of the Indo-Pacific. To be a little more specific with this information, you should know that this branches out from Vietnam to the islands of Okinawa. Considering the distance between these two locations, it is safe to say that the area the umibudou can grow in is pretty vast but despite this vastness, it is only majorly cultivated in two areas which are the Philippines and Okinawa.
The Farms That Cultivate the Japanese Sea Grapes and the Restaurants That Use It Uniquely
In the Philippines, the center of cultivating the sea grapes is in Mactan, Cebu. In Japan, specifically in Okinawa, the farming and cultivating of the Japanese sea grape are centered on the island of Miyako. You can find the island of Miyako between the Yaeyama archipelago and the main island of Okinawa. It is a large island considering that it reaches lengths of 25 kilometers which is divided for different purposes like scuba diving, in addition to the cultivating of the umibudou.
Miyako, without considering the fact that it is where sea grapes are grown, is a worthy place to visit if you are a tourist because of the beautiful coral banks you can find all over the island. It also has a historic feel because of Hirara, which is the main town on the southwestern edge of this island. This town gives a feel of history because if you were to walk around this area during the day time, you will feel like you are touring around ruins from the 70’s with its old concrete buildings that have been damaged and scarred by the severe typhoons that these buildings have endured throughout the years.
Despite this ruin-like appearance during the day, this town is able to transform during the night time when all the restaurants open up serving you all sorts of local food that include the umibudou as well. You can find tradition restaurants that serve the sea grapes with vinegar and soy sauce as well as a cold beer. There are also some that serve it with salad or some fish but you can also find some restaurants in this area that attempt to take the sea grape usage to another level.
A perfect example of such a restaurant is the Ofukuro-tei Restaurant. This place can be found in downtown Hirara and their signature dish that exemplifies their goal of elevating the usage of the umibudou is called the umibudou kaisendon. It is a big bowl of Japanese rice that is mixed with a variety of sashimi and then topped off with a generous amount of umibudou. It has received a lot of great reviews from previous customers so you should definitely see what the fuss is about if you are in that area.
Another restaurant you can look into when looking for unique dishes that make use of Japanese sea grapes is the Nanraku Restaurant. This place is also found in downtown Hirara and unlike Ofukuro-tei, this place serves traditional dishes with a twist. The dish you should try here is called the “Nekomanma” and it essentially combines a dish called katsuo tataki, which is raw sliced skip jack tuna, with a bowl of rice and a generous serving of the sea grapes.
In these restaurants, you are bound to see posters and pictures of the umibudou that might make your mouth water and if you look close enough to these pictures, you will notice that they are probably from an outlet called Nagazaki Sea Farm. As its name suggests, the Nagazaki Sea Farm is one of the many farms that grow and cultivate these sea grapes.
Aside from being the establishment that cultivates the sea grapes, these farms are something endorsed by their local tourism as well because you get to see how these plants are grown and it is quite a unique experience since sea farms like these are not found just anywhere in the world. Usually, when you think of an establishment that does what the Nagazaki Sea Farm does, you immediately imagine big industrial plants to be there. Surprisingly enough though, you will find no such structures existing there because the farms there are actually comprised of small clusters of greenhouses.
A Bit of Umibudou History and Its Health Benefits
Way before these greenhouse farms were invented, the only time locals got to harvest the umibudou was when they would already be growing out of the sea. There was a point in time where they tried to harvest more sea grapes by harvesting even the sea grapes that have not reached levels above the water and they did so because people saw a market for the product in mainland Japan. This plan failed because the harvesters were not able to keep the quality of the sea grapes due to the sand that would come along with the umibudou that were harvested near the sandy ocean floor.
The intensified harvesting might have failed but the market still existed so people thought of different ways to cultivate the plant all year round instead of just during the months of May through August, which is when the plants bloom in natural conditions. The usage of greenhouses as the environment for their growth was great because of the plant's positive response to the warm conditions. They grow faster in warmer weathers and they also stay fresh longer in the same conditions. During the summer, seeds in the greenhouse tanks would only take 25 to 30 days before they ripen. During the winter, on the other hand, the same seeds would take about 40 days to ripen.
This issue with temperature has also been the detrimental factor to why this product is hard to export stock in areas like Tokyo because the slightest temperature drop during transportation can spoil the taste of the sea grapes. In other words, these seaweeds are best enjoyed where they grow which can easily become an incentive for you and your friend to go to Miyako and try it out as fresh as you can get it.
This plant isn’t just good because of its unique texture and taste, it is also quite healthy if you consider the benefits you get from eating it. It was discovered that these umibudou are rich in antibacterial and antifungal properties. In addition to this, it has also been found to moderate blood pressure and sugar levels. It is also abundant in vitamins and minerals and it doesn’t hurt you on a diet because it is very low in calories.
Considering all the information laid out here for you to take in, it is easy to say that this unique Japanese seaweed is definitely something to try out at least once in your life. It goes well with all kinds of seafood dishes and it is also a great side dish to have when you are drinking with your buddies. It won’t even take much of your time to visit the farms that cultivate them because they are very close to some great beaches in Japan so if you are booked to tour around surrounding areas by Miyako, drop by and enjoy the unique Japanese experience you are sure to have there.