What a difference an en makes: kombucha != konbucha

Last week The Economist carried an article about kokumi, a putative sixth flavour longing to take its place alongside umami. In it, I read that:

Dr Sasano supplemented the diets of his volunteers with kombucha, an umami-rich infusion of kelp.

That brought me up short. As far as I know, kombucha is a sort of fermented sweet tea. I shared my perplexity on social media. Back, eventually, came a reply.1 “I think it’s a classic case of the anglicised word being ascribed the wrong meaning,” said my friend who has lived in Japan, helpfully pointing me to the introductory paragraph in the Wikipedia article on kombucha:

In Japan, Konbucha (昆布茶, “kelp tea”) refers to a different beverage made from dried and powdered kombu (an edible kelp from the Laminariaceae family). For the origin of the English word kombucha, first recorded in 1995 and of uncertain etymology, the American Heritage Dictionary suggests: “Probably from Japanese kombucha, tea made from kombu (the Japanese word for kelp perhaps being used by English speakers to designate fermented tea due to confusion or because the thick gelatinous film produced by the kombucha culture was thought to resemble seaweed).”

So, that settles it? Not quite. For the original paper by Sasano et al. actually says:

We used Japanese Kobucha (kelp tea: tea made of powdered tangle seaweed) …

I can only guess that somewhere along the line a dumb spell-checker or an intelligent Economist proofreader overstepped the mark. Or, just possibly, the original authors got it wrong.

  1. Not, I should add, from Twitter but from the much more useful ADN. []

4 Replies to “What a difference an en makes: kombucha != konbucha”

  1. Dear Jeremy, I am a long-time reader and agricultural biodiversity fan living in Japan.

    In reference to the spelling question of konbucha (or kombucha) vs kobucha, I think that it was not so much a spelling mistake on the part of either author as a case of multiple pronunciations for the same meaning.

    The characters for konbucha (昆布茶) can also be read correctly in Japanese as kobucha, omitting the m/n sound altogether. (Not sure whether this relates to Japanese mora…morae (?), if at all).

    According to the Japanese Wikipedia page, it’s not clear whether the word is actually Chinese or Ainu in origin and many different pronunciations and characters have been used historically to indicate the word in different regions of Japan.

    In my experience, konbucha or kombucha (with the n/m sound included) seems to be the most common spoken version these days.

    And although I have never seen the other kombucha (fermented, sweetened tea) available in any grocery store here in Japan, the misnomer is mentioned on the Japanese Wikipedia page, with the other kombucha referred to as “black tea mushroom” (紅茶キノコ), so no chance of confusion here.

    As a side note, kelp tea or broth is often used in cooking to replace salt or traditional fish broth (dashi) for those on low-sodium diets or in vegan, temple cuisine (shojin ryori). It’s also mixed with dried, sour plum and served as a tea to drink along with traditional sweets so that one can alternate between sweet and sour/savory tastes.

    Some people find it unpleasant but I find it very tasty and mild and I enjoy using kombu broth as the base for miso soup and other dishes.

    Thank you, as always, for the thought-provoking comments and fascinating reading material!

  2. That makes a lot of sense cuz Kombucha doesn’t taste like it’s got umami in it like a kelp tea would. I actually have no clue but it’s sweet how important umami is and also sense of smell right cuz of you block your nose while eating you can’t taste things as good. Man I speak eloquentally.

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