Open a bottle of Iwai sesame oil and the air will be infused with a nutty, toasted aroma, taking you through the 160 year old traditions of Iwai.
The Iwai family has been making sesame oil in Yokohama in Kanagawa prefecture for nearly two centuries. While other manufactures use chemicals and preservatives to speed up the extraction process, Iwai uses their own time honored method called "assaku" to extract the nutty oil from their sesame seeds. Using extreme pressure, the seeds are pressed twice. The first press produces the finest oil calledichiban shibori, followed by a second press which extracts the remaining oil. The oil is then filtered to remove any impurities.
Iwai's sesame oil is used to make a variety of products including pure sesame oil, chili-infused sesame oils, pastes and more. While much has changed over the decades, Iwai's sesame oil, from the method to the flavor, remains the same.
We had the unique opportunity to speak with Tetsutaro Iwai, CEO of Iwai Sesame Oil, to discuss his family's traditions and history, and the many lessons learned along the way.
Kokoro: How would you describe the corporate culture at Iwai Sesame Oil?
Iwai-san: Our company has a free and easy culture with a foundation rooted in naturalism. Our motto is to work: "Seijitsu, Majime, Kotsukotsu" (sincerely, earnestly, diligently) and "Nikoniko, kibikibi, hakihaki" (smilingly, lively, briskly).
Because we focus on the craftsmanship, we make sure to properly nurture the hard working spirit of our employees. I think this is why so many of our employees take such pride in their daily roles and are eager to share their skills with others.
Kokoro: Iwai has a strong tradition with more than 160 years of history. What creation processes have you carried on from previous generations?
Iwai-san: During the roasting process, we make sure that our sesame seeds are roasted to a proper crispiness, check that they have the perfect color and taste, raise and lower the cooking temperature when needed, and so much more. We’re able to make such great products because we have people carefully managing each stage of this important process. This daily production process has been passed down from person to person through the years.
Kokoro: Can you give us some details about sesame oil?
Iwai-san: Sesame oil has such an enduring history and has many uses outside of just food products. It was mixed with henna and used as a preservative for mummies. Cleopatra even used it as part of a facial mask. In traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it’s used in a therapy called Shirodhara, where the oil is drizzled on a person’s forehead. It can be used for gargling, in eye medicine, and even for cleaning newborn babies. There’s an ancient book from China about how healthy food prevents and cures sicknesses; it claims that sesame has a wealth of uses. And compared to other cooking oils, roasted sesame oil doesn't oxidize quickly.
On top of all that, the quality of Japanese sesame oil is considered to be the best in the world. The taste and smell is extraordinary!
Kokoro: Throughout your long history, is there anything that has changed or steadfastly remained the same?
Iwai-san: Nothing major has changed in terms of our specialization in making sesame oil products. Our production methods from long ago have been diligently maintained even though Iwai has had to overcome so many natural disasters in its 163 year history.
The sesame oil market is a mature market with 1% growth and stable sales. During this coronavirus catastrophe, sesame oil is ranked among the top 20 products that people are ordering while at home. Although it's a mature market, demand at home is growing considerably.
Kokoro: Could you recommend a use for sesame oil or sesame chili oil in food?
Iwai-san: Sesame oil is delicious with all sorts of ingredients, in all sorts of dishes, but I always say, "Choi kake!"(Just a dash!). Even just a little makes food taste delicious and will increase your appetite. Beyond Japanese food, it's widely used in other cuisines, such as French food, to make things such as dressings by mixing sesame oil with salt and pepper. I like to sprinkle this dressing on leafy vegetables. Also, thinly sliced burdock twice fried in sesame oil then sprinkled with salt and pepper, is quite enjoyable as a healthy burdock senbei cracker. It’s really exquisite and I recommend it as a healthy snack.
Sesame chili oil can be a good substitute for Tabasco sauce. Since it's boiled, rather than fermented, it doesn’t have a strong acidity. It goes well with cheese and ketchup, and great on all sorts of Western foods such as pizza and pasta.
Kokoro: Do you have a short message for your company’s foreign customers?
Iwai-san:Sesame oil is a versatile seasoning that goes well with any dish or ingredient. Please enjoy delicious and nutritious sesame oil at every opportunity!
Learn more about Iwai Sesame Oil at https://www.iwainogomaabura.co.jp/english
Translation courtesy of Kenneth Valencich