The other day I was talking to someone and my blog came up. She was most enthusiastic and told me that she had been trying to get more seaweed into her diet, but that she wasn’t entirely sure where to start. Seaweed is featured prominently in washoku and this conversation gave me the idea for this post.
Living on the coast of Maine, I am very familiar with seaweed and am lucky enough to have several local companies who harvest organic seaweed and sell it at the local co-op. I’ve been eating it my whole life, often right off the beach. Maybe most people wouldn’t munch on rockweed, but I do. Cooking with it is a bit different though and that’s where the Japanese come in, because they’ve been cooking with it since time immemorial.
First off, you might be wondering what exactly seaweed is (or sea vegetable as some people call it). It’s actually a type of algae, albeit a much larger version than the type that we usually associate with that name. There are many different types, in fresh water as well as salt, though most fresh water seaweeds are toxic. Sea weed is usually a good bet if you’re foraging though, as the toxic varieties are unpalatable. This means that if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t. But why would you eat the edible stuff, if you’re not living off the land? Well, it is very high in fiber, high in vitamins, low in calories, and contains a complete protein. Aside from that they taste good.
I’m going to focus on wakame, hijiki, kombu, nori, and kanten. These are not only the most common seaweeds in Japanese cooking, they are also widely available in natural food stores and Asian Markets. If you live in a coastal region, like me, you might even be able to get them from a local company. As they are all dried, it is very easy to keep them in stock.
Wakame is a wonderful seaweed which has been farmed in Japan since the Nara Period (710-794). If you’ve ever had miso soup at a Japanese restaurant you might have had this seaweed, as it is very commonly found there. It has a mildly sweet flavor and a firm, though slightly slimy, texture. I love it, though some people might find they have to get used to it. Generally speaking wakame is used in soups and salads, though sometimes you’ll see it as a garnish too. If you’d like to try this seaweed, Japanese Cooking 101 has a great recipe for Cucumber and Wakame Sunomono, a type of salad.
Next is hijiki, one of the most versatile seaweeds. It’s used mostly in Japanese home cooking, usually stewed in dashi flavored with soy sauce. From there it can be mixed into stir fries, salads, rice, or other simmered vegetables. The most important thing to remember while using hijiki is that it must be soaked for about an hour, then rinsed thoroughly before stewing, and eaten with other vegetables. You should not eat more than two table spoons (dried) a day, though since it expands when hydrated, you really wouldn’t want to. This is a precaution since hijiki contains a small amount of inorganic arsenic, but as long as these procedures are followed, it is perfectly safe (even for pregnant women). According to Japanese folklore, if you want long, thick, black hair you should regularly consume small amounts of Hijiki. If you want to give it a try, maybe your hair has been a little thin, here is a recipe for Hijiki no Nimono.
Kombu (or konbu) is an edible kelp that is mostly cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. However, it can also be found in the atlantic, and one of the companies in my area sells it at our local co-op. The most common use for kombu is in the making of dashi, the stock that is the base of many Japanese recipes. However, it is occasionally eaten by itself, though it is rather leathery. I think that dashi is one of the most delicious flavors in Japanese cooking, but if you want to try actually consuming kombu I recommend soaking it first, then cutting it into small pieces. For instructions on making a great batch of kombu dashi, go here.
Nori is probably one of the most familiar seaweed, thanks to sushi’s popularity around the world. If you’re shrewd, you might have guessed that it doesn’t grow in sheets, but is in fact processed. It is made in a similar fashion to paper, the seaweed being shredded and then dried into sheets. This method has been in use since the Edo Period, though a paste made from nori had been around far longer. Today, it is mainly used as wrappings for sushi or onigiri, though it is also eaten by itself, toasted, or used as a garnish. My mother and I like to get it toasted and marinated with sesame and soy sauce. Aonori is made from shredded nori and is used as a topping to many foods, like okonomiyaki. Another, rarer version is the paste, which is supposedly a bit like marmite.
Lastly we have kanten, which is not a seaweed in and of itself, but is a coagulant taken from seaweed. Outside of Japan you’re more likely to find it under the name agar agar. It was discovered in the 1650s or 60s by Mino Tarōzaemon. Many traditional Japanese desserts use kanten to make a jelly like substance, which can be made flavored with fruit or beans, or eaten plain with syrup or fresh fruits. If you’d like to try one, Just One Cookbook has an excellent recipe. Today it is often used as an alternative to gelatin, since it is vegetarian and gelatin is made from hooves.
There are many reasons to try one or all of these seaweeds. Perhaps you like the nutritional benefits, or like the flavor and texture, or merely want to try something new. Even if you think it sounds weird I encourage you to pick up some seaweed soon and try it. You might be surprised
Until next time, my budding phycologist!