Text and images by Catherine Ling @ Makansutra
The world of seaweed is amazingly varied, and this sea vegetable is a critical ingredient for many tasty dishes, cosmetics and even medicinal treatments. Together with the Chinese and Koreans, the Japanese recognise that seaweed helps reduces the risk of some diseases and helps the body eliminate dangerous toxins. Besides the most widely used nori, here are five seaweed products you should get to know.
Aosa is a bright green sea lettuce with leaves that are incredibly thin and have holes like Swiss cheese. Some of the fronds are only two cells thick, but are incredibly strong and elastic thanks to certain proteins, which also make them valuable as anti-wrinkle cosmetic ingredients that help skin elasticity. Scatter this green algae on top of your ramen, soba, or okonomiyaki.
This is one of the three main ingredients for making dashi, that essential soup base that flavours many Japanese dishes. Boil this and katsuobushi (dried bonito) shavings in water, and strain the resulting liquid. It can also be eaten pickled, or fresh as sashimi. You’ll find it in many forms – shredded, fresh, dried or frozen. Konbu is rich in glutamic acid, which gives us that umami flavour. It’s from the brown algae family, and most of it is cultivated in Hokkaido.
You would definitely have encountered this in many a bowl of miso soup. Wakame is a rich source of of calcium, iodine, thiamine, niacin, vitamins A, C, and E. These dark green leafy ribbons might also make you burn fat faster, thanks to the compound fucoxanthin. Wakame is also used for salads, vinegared side dishes, and added to stir fries, noodles and rice. Interestingly, it’s a very invasive seaweed species, and is even declared unwanted in New Zealand, where it must have arrived by accident via Asian ships.
These short, plump, cylindrical strands are part of the brown algae family. They are green to brown when harvested fresh, but turn black when processed. It’s been said that the Japanese owe their thick, black, lustrous locks to regular consumption of hijiki. That’s probably due to the abundance of minerals it yields (calcium, iron, and magnesium), which also add to the health and beauty benefits it’s reputed for. Soak it in water before you add it to vegetables and fish (popularly seasoned with soy sauce and sugar). It’s also a great source of dietary fibre.
Extremely popular in Okinawa where it is naturally found, mozuku is a slimy, stringy and yet crunchy seaweed. It is often added to a vinegar dip, or to dishes like stir-fries and omelettes. Like many of the seaweed mentioned above, it is a source of fucoidan, a compound used in cancer aid treatment.