Furikake: What Does It Mean & Where Did It Come From?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 18, 2022

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If you are a foodie or recently came across a Japanese restaurant, you might have noticed people sprinkling colorful, crispy toppings on their rice.

Furikake comes from the Japanese words “furi” meaning “to sprinkle” and “kake” meaning “on top.” So, furikake means “to sprinkle on top.”

So the word doesn’t have anything to do with the ingredients, but more with the action or use. That’s probably why there are so many different flavors (check out our best furikake brands review as well)

What is furikake

Furikake is a dry Japanese seasoning meant to be sprinkled on top of rice. It typically consists of a mixture of dried and ground fish, toasted sesame seeds, chopped nori seaweed, sugar, salt, and monosodium glutamate, a great wat to add umami.

Other flavorful ingredients such as katsuobushi (sometimes indicated on the package as bonito), okaka (bonito flakes moistened with soy sauce and dried again), freeze-dried salmon particles, shiso, egg, powdered miso, vegetables, etc., are often added to the mix.

One of the great things about Japanese cuisine is that it offers a combination of flavors in a single meal – and furikake is one of the ways to get lots of flavor on a single spoon.

Furikake, pronounced “fuh-ree-kaw-kee,” seasoning is traditionally used as a topping for rice, but it tastes great on almost every savory food you can imagine.

Furikake is sprinkled to add crunch and flavor to fish, vegetables, and cooked rice.

The best part is that you can create your own mix, controlling what’s in it by putting as little or as much of any ingredient as you like.

Furikake seasoning offers a great source of protein and other nutrients like calcium. It was first introduced to address calcium deficiency and malnourishment in the Japanese population, especially among children.

Furikake is often flakey and brightly colored. It has slight seafood or fish flavoring with a pinch of spicy tang. It is mostly used in Japanese cuisine for rice balls like these onigiri and pickled foods.

In recent years, furikake has gained major prominence in western countries and across the globe. People use it as a seasoning for fried or baked fish, snack foods, and raw fish and meat salads.

In Japan, you can find furikake in every department store. And outside the country, most Asian supermarkets and grocery stores have an aisle for different flavors of furikake or you can find it at the local Japanese market.

What does furikake taste like?

Furikake has a savory, umami flavor that is perfect for adding a little extra depth of flavor to dishes. It can be used as a seasoning on its own or added to other sauces or dressings.

A lot of the flavor profile comes from the white sesame seeds, but the salty oceanic flavor of the nori also helps give it a lot of depth.

It contains ingredients from the sea like nori seaweed and bonito flakes (dried tuna flakes) so it has a fishy taste and it’s salty. But, it’s a bit more complex than that because the sesame seeds give a delicious nutty flavor too.

So overall, I would describe the taste as umami. It is a crunchy seasoning so expect to hear the crunch in your mouth.

What are the different types of furikake?

Did you know that furikake is a popular seasoning for kids? It’s used to improve the flavor of bland rice dishes and vegetables to encourage kids to eat their food.

But, these days adults really love this topping and new flavors are constantly created.

One of the most popular furikake flavors is sansho which is a Japanese pepper and this spicy variety is perfect for spicing up a boring food.

Another popular kind is the wasabi with a strong taste.

Then, you have the classic bonito flake furikake (katsuo) and the noritama made with Nori seaweed and tamago. These have small pieces of colorful fish flakes that you can see.

Also popular but less common, you’ve got the sake salmon furikake and the cod roe (tarako) and these are perfect for fish lovers.

Most furikake doesn’t contain any shellfish or nuts so generally it’s safe for people with allergies but always check first. And of course, watch out if you have an allergy to sesame seeds, as they are often in furikake.

What’s the origin of furikake?

The idea of furikake is very old. But, the actual seasoning called furikake originates in the late 1950s.

For centuries before that, it was made from dried fish like shark, red snapper, and salmon but it wasn’t really the furikake we know today. 

Furikake originated in Japan over 12 centuries ago. It was originally used as a way to preserve fish as flakes to easily be used on rice, but became popular as seasoning in the 1920s when pharmacist Suekichi Yoshimaru found a way to use it to combat the Japanese calcium deficiency.

They say Suekichi Yoshimaru invented furikake as we know it.

Furikake, unlike other centuries-old Japanese foods, is a new tradition.

In fact, the interesting part about its history is that furikake was not created by a chef to add flavor, but rather by a pharmacist to provide nutritional supplements!

The seasoning is named after “Furi Kakeru,” a Japanese verb meaning “to sprinkle over.”

Nutritional deficiencies & war

Modern furikake was created in the Taisho era (1921-1926). It came about as a result of a nutritional deficiency among the local population.

The Japanese population grew by two-thirds between 1867 and 1912.

It was a time of war and general poverty. The Japanese empire was undergoing a constant expansion of its military power. Many wars were waged to expand its control. The war machine was fuelled first, so Japan experienced a shortage of food.

An unhealthy and poor diet caused the population and the army to develop serious calcium deficiencies.

One pharmacist was worried about the low calcium content in Japanese food.

Suekichi Yoshimaru, a pharmacist, came up with the idea of a calcium supplement from ground-up fish bones to address malnutrition. 

Yoshimaru decided that children wouldn’t like the taste of the bonemeal, so he mixed it with sesame seeds and nori flakes. He suggested making powder from dried fish, which is rich in calcium.

Mixing sesame with herbs (shiso), he made a powder that can be used as a calcium supplement for people who don’t like fish. So basically that’s how furikake came to be.

Nowadays, furikake is more than a seasoning though. It is a way to support the health of Japanese people through food because it’s not really considered a supplement. 

Gohan No Tomo

Yoshimaru’s original powder is the precursor to furikake and it was called Gohan No Tomo. 

Gohan No Tomo‘s successes inspired Seiichirou Kai to attempt his own version. The powdered and ithimochi (white croaker fish), was cooked in a soy sauce mixture.

Next, it was dehydrated and mixed with sesame and nori seeds. Kai’s brand was called Kore wa Umai or “This Is Good.” His business grew to Tokyo where he created the noritama seaweed flavor and the egg flavor.

In World War 1, soldiers received rations from the army in the form of Gohan No Tomo, which were inexpensive and stable supplements.

Furikake was a favorite of soldiers, and it became more popular after they returned home.

These seasonings became collectively known as furikake in 1959 and they still use this name to date. 

How do you use furikake?

Furikake can be used in many different ways. It is often referred to as Japanese rice seasoning and sprinkled on top of plain steamed rice or other dishes for extra flavor.

It can also be used as a seasoning in sauces or dressings, or even added to soups or stews.

What’s the difference between furikake and togarashi?

Togarashi is a Japanese chili pepper powder that is often used as a seasoning. It has a spicy, piquant flavor, whereas furikake has a savory, umami flavor.

Togarashi is also only a powder, while furikake is more flakes and bits of seaweed.

What’s the difference between furikake and gomasio?

Gomasio is a Japanese seasoning made from ground sesame seeds and salt. It has a nutty, savory flavor, whereas furikake has a savory, umami flavor with a hint of sweetness. Gomasio is ground while furikaki is flaky and has larger pieces.

How to store furikake

Furikake can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months. Once opened, it is best to keep it in an airtight container to keep it fresh.

Popular dishes that use furikake

Some popular dishes that use furikake include:

-Onigiri (Japanese rice balls): Onigiri is made from rice that is formed into a ball or triangle shape and then usually wrapped in seaweed. Furikake is often sprinkled on top.

-Omurice (Japanese omelette rice): Omurice is made from rice that is fried with an egg omelette on top. Furikake is often sprinkled on the rice inside.

-Japanese Curry: Japanese curry is made from a variety of ingredients such as meat, vegetables, and rice. Furikake is often sprinkled on top of Japanese curry for extra flavor.

-Ramen: Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup that is made from broth, noodles, and a variety of toppings. Furikake is often sprinkled on top of ramen and you eat it before it sinks and becomes mushy.

Is furikake healthy?

Furikake is a good source of calcium, iron, and vitamin A. It is also low in calories and fat. However, it is high in sodium, so it is important to consume it in moderation.

Furikake can be a great way to add extra flavor and nutrients to your dishes. It is versatile condiment.

Yes, furikake is generally a healthy seasoning.

Dulse seaweed has a high level of calcium and magnesium. It also contains high levels of potassium, magnesium, protein, and fiber.

Dulse, like all seaweeds, is one of the best natural sources of iodine. This essential mineral is vital for your thyroid gland’s ability to regulate your metabolism, heart function, and brain function, helping you to think better. 

Almost all of furikake’s ingredients are safe. You should not overuse furikake though and consume it in moderation because of its high sodium content. A small amount packs a powerful flavor. 

This seasoning contains a lot of salt due to the soy sauce as well as the seasoned seaweed. As a result, the seasoning is very salty and should be avoided by those who have high cholesterol.

One problem with furikake is the addition of MSG (Monosodium glutamate). Not all furikake seasonings contain this additive. The reason MSG is supposedly bad for health is that it overstimulates the nerve cells.

Also read: does furikake go bad and expire or can you store it?

Conclusion

Furikake has a lot to offer us, from flavor to getting in those highly needed nutrients. But most of all, it’s an easy way to add authentic Japanese cooking to your dishes.

Also read: this is our tried and tested homemade furikake recipe

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.