Everything you ever wanted to know about seaweed,
but were afraid to ask
The days when Western people saw seaweed eating as totally alien and gross are well and truly over. These days, nori seaweed is well known as the stuff you use to wrap sushi rolls. Yet the broader world of Japanese seaweed eating is still a little mysterious to most people, so I thought I would try to shed some light on the many ways seaweed can make your dinner better.
People say seaweed is good for you, and I’m sure that’s true. But there are much better reasons for eating it. What’s really important for you to know is how to use these delicious plants to enrich your table.
Because, make no mistake about it: in Japan, edible seaweed is about much more than just that strange, paper-like, black thing on the outside of sushi rolls we call nori. We use at least 6 types of seaweed in Japanese home cooking, each in a different way.
The stars below indicate how often we use that particular type.
- Konbu: Konbu is a kind of kelp mainly used for making soup stock. It gives soups and sauces a particular, deep flavor and is a key ingredient in the ubiquitous dashi soup stock. You can eat it also as tsukudani, or shiokonbu (see photo). Konbu is a hidden wonder: it makes a huge variety of Japanese dishes more authentic and delicious. Usually you buy it in big, long sheet, but you only need a segment about 5 cm. long to flavor the broth for a family dinner. So I usually cut up the sheet into small segments and keep them in a jar. Dried konbu will keep for an amazingly long time, but it is expensive. It’s certainly nice to have around, but if you don’t cook japanese food so often, you can do without it.
- Wakame: Wakame is more like a vegetable. It’s often used as a salad green, such as in sunomono (salad in vinegar marinade), or simmered (nimono), but it also turns up in soups quite often. In contrast to konbu, which has a deep, distinctive taste, wakame has only a very faint taste of its own. You use it more for its wonderful texture but, in the end, it just tastes like whatever sauce you put on it. Fresh wakame is much much better than dried wakame, but well near impossible to find outside Japan. So living in Montreal we don’t have much of a choice but to eat the dried version.
- Nori: This is the one you know from sushi. What you may not know is that there are three different types: simple nori (yaki-nori), flavored nori (ajitsuke-nori) and aonori. The first two are black or dark green, and ao-nori is green.
- Yaki-nori is the most popular in the West, used for sushi or as garnish (see takikomi-gohan). One crucial home-cooking tip you should know is that Nori gets stale fairly fast after you open the package: to revive it, you want to quickly pass it over the open flame of a kitchen burner a couple of times on each side, “regrilling it” just before you serve it. This makes even slightly stale nori feel fresh all over again.
- Flavored nori goes well with white rice. Eating white rice with flavored nori is a typical part of a Japanese breakfast. Korean flavored nori is increasingly popular in Japan, also as a topping for white rice. You could also eat flavored nori just on its own, but you should resist the urge to do it when in polite company: eating flavored nori as a snack is considered fairly vulgar (which doesn’t mean people don’t do it!)
- Ao-nori is often used for okonomiyaki or yakisoba in home cooking. Aonori gives a special flavor to those dishes, but considering the very high cost, I never buy it outside of Japan.
- Hijiki: Hijiki is also used like a vegetable. But, as opposed to nori and wakame, you definitely need to cook it first. I use hijiki for nimono (simmering), itamemono (stir frying) and as flavoring in takikomi-gohan. Hijiki stir fried with bitter greens and topped with katsuobushi and sesame paste is my husband’s absolute favorite Japanese dish, and we would eat it all the time, except that it’s extremely difficult to find in the West. In Paris he used to cycle all over the city looking for hijiki desperately in every Asian food shop he could find, and only had occasional success. If you find it, consider yourself lucky.
- Kanten (Agar): Kanten is a gelatinous substance made from tengusa seaweed. In the West, it is well-known as a part of agar plate, but in Japan we usually eat it before scientists get a chance to get to it! Kanten has no taste of its own, and it’s a recurring focus of diet fads in Japan. Before the war, Japan was a big exporter of agar plate. These days, kanten is used for mostly Japanese sweets. Tokoroten, a traditional Japanese jelly-like food product, is also made with Kanten.
- Mozuku: Mozuku is produced in Okinawa and popular all over Japan. It’s used mainly for sunomono (salad in vinegar marinade). Sometimes it’s used for zousui or osuimono. I love Mozuku, but unless you live in a city with a huge Asian population (Vancouver? LA?) you’re just never going to find it.
In effect, then, what you really want to keep around is konbu, wakame and nori. They’re relatively affordable, very useful, and extremely delicious. Try it!