Seaweed : Traditional Ingredient in Japan and a New Super Food for You

In our health-conscious society, people are always hungry for new super nutritious ingredients. Quinoa and acai berries are some of the exotic ingredients that have received attention in the past few years. The Japanese diet is known for its healthfulness, and one of the staple ingredients that plays a huge role is kaiso or seaweed. It’s probably new to U.S. consumers, but Japanese have enjoyed many kinds of seaweed in various ways for centries. Here Chopsticks NY demystifies this ingredient.

From a nutritional point of view, seaweed contains a lot of soluble fiber and minerals while having zero calories. It also contains “fucoidan,” which is considered to be a strong anti-oxidant that helps to improve the immune system. These facts already make seaweed a super great food you might want to try right away. Also, taste-wise it is rich in umami components, making it indispensable for dashi broth which is the heart of Japanese cuisine. To make umami-rich dashi broth, Japanese commonly use katsuobushi (bonito flakes), sardines, shiitakemushrooms and konbu (or kombu) kelp (a type of seaweed). Chefs usually mix several of these ingredients to get exquisite dashi broth, and katsuobushi with konbu kelp are a popular combination. But if you are a vegetarian, konbu kelp alone is suffi cient to get enough umami.

You might not have any idea what seaweed is, but nori used in sushi, wakame found in miso soup, and hijiki served as an appetizer are some of the examples you can see in Japanese restaurants. This just scratches the surface through. The following are some seaweed products that you can buy in Japanese grocery stores near you. It is a good time to start something new, so why not incorporate this healthy and fl avorful ingredient into your diet for the New Year?

Konbu Kelp

This is leafy seaweed that is mainly used for making dashi broth. It’s sold dried and when you use it, soak it in cold water for about 30 minutes – 1 hour and take it out. You can still use the konbu after releasing its umami to the dashi, to make simmered dishes, such as kobumaki (a konbu roll simmered in savory sauce) and oden.

Wakame

This is leafy seaweed that is mainly used for making dashi broth. It’s sold dried and when you use it, soak it in cold water for about 30 minutes – 1 hour and take it out. You can still use the konbu after releasing its umami to the dashi, to make simmered dishes, such as kobumaki (a konbu roll simmered in savory sauce) and oden.

Hijiki

This dark brown, almost black, seaweed has the shape of tiny branches. It has almost 14 times more calcium than milk. Available as a dried product, you can soak it in water for a couple of minutes, drain it and simmer it with sweet and savory sauces, usually soy sauce, sugar and mirin.

Mekabu

This very slimy seaweed has a great amount of fucoidan, a type of sulfated polysaccharide used for cancer treatment. It is the root of wakame, and is available both fresh and dried. In the U.S. market, it is sold dried and the product is usually packaged with sauce. Soak it, drain it and then eat it with the sauce that is usually savory and vinegary. You can also enjoy it just by putting it into miso soup.

Tororo Konbu

This is a shaved konbu, which is much easier to use in cooking than regular konbu. Tororo konbu is ready to eat without any heating, so it isoften used as a topping for noodles,sunomono, salad and soup. Once it’s blended with any liquid, it turns slimy. Before being shaved, konbu is soaked in vinegary water and then dried to make tororo konbu, so it has a touch of a vinegary smell and flavor.

Shio Konbu

This is processed konbu that is shredded, simmered with seasonings, dried, and dressed with salt. The great thing about shio konbu is its ease of use. Just put it on top of steamed rice or stuff it into onigiri or omusubi (rice ball) for an umami kick. Also, shio konbu is used in stir fry dishes and pickles as a secret ingredient that adds a touch of saltiness and saboriness.

Nori

You might be familiar with this flat black sheet of paper used in makizushi or maki (rolled sushi), but nori generally refers to a type of algae grown along the ocean’s rocky coastline. Japanese eat it in various forms. Flattened nori isthe most common, which is used for sushi, onigiri and omusubi, or you can just eat it as is for a snack. There is also non-flattened dried nori, and it’s enjoyed in miso soup and as a salad. The flake type known as ao nori is used as a topping for okonomiyaki pancakes, takoyaki balls, grilled dishes and salads as well, and it gives them a refreshing aroma and a bit of a bitter kick. Nori no tsukuda-ni is a savory nori jam. It might sound strange, but it is a tasty topping for steamed rice. Its umami kick is so addictive it might be a hard for you to stop eating it.

Kanten (Agar-agar)

This is made by boiling different types of seaweed until they melt, and then filtering and freeze-drying it. It is used like a gelatin to make sweets and thicken soups, but it has no animal base component. Kanten contains an abundance of both soluble and insoluble fiber, as much as 80 grams in 100 grams of kanten. There are many Japanese sweets made with kanten, including mizu-yokan (red bean jelly).

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