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Kumamoto Oysters
gourmet articlesarchivekumamoto oysters
What is a Kumamoto? Kumamoto is the name of the large bay on the southern most Island of Japan, Kyushu. For some reason, a different species developed there than the most abundant oyster found in Japan, the northern Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas. The Latin name for this unique oyster is Crassostrea sikamea, now commonly referred to as the Kumamoto Oyster.

How did the Kumamoto become so popular in the USA? About fifty years ago the oyster growers in Humboldt Bay California thought they had come up with the solution to the summer oyster problem. The west coast oyster industry had been importing oysters from Japan since before World War II and only stopped for the years during the war. The oysters grown on the West coast from Japanese seed were used for shucking and found their way on the supermarket shelves as fresh-shucked oysters in the jar or in cans of oyster chowder. To have a good quality shucked oyster, it must be firm and fat and not all soft and mushy as they get during the summer when readying for spawning.

As soon as the big one was dropped, those oystermen where booking flights over to visit their old oyster buddies in Japan. The Oyster men in California knew about this beautiful, plump, sweet oyster located down south in Kumamoto and thought that in the cold water of Humboldt Bay that those warm water Kumamoto’s would never get all soft and mushy for spawning. The warm water is what makes the oysters sexy. Keep them in cold water and they never get in the mood. So they oyster boys in Humboldt Bay decided to bring over a few million Kumamoto Seed to see how they would do. For many years after that, the Kumamotos were cultured in Humboldt Bay and wound up in oyster chowder and on supermarket selves.

Then the Oystermen got really wise and commissioned the first successful, commercial oyster hatchery in the USA, Pigeon Point Shellfish to start raising these Kumamoto seed for them. This way they wouldn’t have to make those long trips to Japan every year and eat all that raw fish. Years went by. Then the market for shucked oysters became more competitive, costs of growing and shucking oysters increased. Those slow growing, difficult Kumamotos were forgotten about. Until the early eighties... In 1982 when I was first starting Marinelli Shellfish, I was looking for new and exciting oysters to sell. Since I had worked at Pigeon Point for a number of years, I knew all the oyster farms. I called up my buddies in Humboldt Bay and spoke with the chief oysterman up there, Twig LaBranche (that’s his real name…). I asked Twig about all that Kumamoto seed we had been sending him for years. He had millions of these Kumamotos on his beds and nowhere to sell them. They had become just too expensive and slow growing for him to do anything with. Enter the Kumamoto half shell oyster. The initial reaction in San Francisco where I first marketed the Kumamoto was, “sorry kid, you’ll never sell them, too small…” Not discouraged I went door to door and bypassed those stodgy fish wholesalers. When restaurants like Chez Panisse, Fourth Street Grill and Zuni café started featuring my Kumamotos I knew I had a hit.

Now oyster farms from California to Washington are growing the Kumamoto oyster, but the BEST still come from Humboldt Bay. Twig La Branche has long retired but even more disturbing is that the Kumamoto oyster is now extinct in Kumamoto Bay. There are no indigenous Kumamotos left. Pollution has killed them off. The Japanese had too realized that the Kumamoto was very expensive to grow. The Northern cousin, the gigas was much easier and profitable and no efforts were made to protect the Kumamoto species. Now Kumamoto seed is like gold, with oyster farms up and down the coast fighting over it. The Kumamoto oyster has now become a rare specimen and a reminder of man’s folly in the oceans.

Bill Marinelli is known throughout Asia as the “Oyster King”. A Marine biologist turned fish monger, he has been distributing live shellfish and fresh fish around the USA and Asia since 1982.

Marinelli Shellfish
2383 S. 200th Street
Seattle, WA 98198
phone: 206-870-0233
fax: 206-870-0238

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