If you had asked me what “kombu” was a few months ago, I would have had no idea what you were talking about (and I think a lot of people living in England or America would have the same response.) So for those of you who are still scratching you head, read on.
Kombu is a type of sea kelp that is rich in vitamins and minerals, including potassium, calcium and iodine. It is traditionally used in Japanese cooking and is a key ingredient for making dashi. Dried kombu is a great ingredient to keep stashed in your pantry, as it is a tasty addition to soups and salads, and makes beans more digestible when added to the cooking water. You can buy packets of dried sheets in health food and Asian food stores; kombu may appear to be pricey, but remember that a little goes a long way with seaweed, and 50g will last you months!
Kombu is not your stereotypical sea vegetable, and has a very mild (i.e. not “sea weed-y”) flavour. Because it contains natural glutamic acid (the basis of MSG) , it is a natural flavour enhancer and adds umami to dishes, whilst also providing valuable minerals and nutrients to food it is cooked with. Another great benefit is that when kombu is added to the cooking water in a pot of beans, it helps make legumes more digestible by tenderizing the proteins that can cause gas, and also cuts down the cooking time.
The idea of eating seaweed never really appealed to me (aside from sushi) but my naturopath has recommended that I add more to my diet. I recently attended a talk on nutrition, and a section of it focused on the importance of adding sea vegetable to your diet, and introduced me to kombu. Since then, I’ve been investigating the benefits seaweed a bit more, and man, they really are a superfood! In fact, there is so much good stuff packed into such a humble piece of algae, I could write an essay on it – but I’ll give you a shorter quote instead, from SAC’s Consumer’s Guide to Sea Vegetables:
“Although they are part of the plant kingdom, sea vegetables are a complete protein source and one of nature’s richest sources of vegetable protein (up to 38%) and vitamin B12. Ounce for ounce sea vegetables are higher in vitamins and minerals than any other food group. They are particularly high in vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B6, and B12. Seaweed also contains a substance (ergesterol) that converts to vitamin D in the body. In addition to key nutrients, seaweeds provide us with carotene, chlorophyll, enzymes, and fiber.
Seaweed’s saltiness comes from a balanced, chelated combination of sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and a myriad of trace minerals found in the ocean […] Sea vegetables are known for their ability to reduce cholesterol, remove metallic and radioactive elements from the body, and to prevent goiter. Seaweed also has antibiotic properties that have shown to be effective against penicillin resistant bacteria.”
Kombu is something I’ve only started cooking with in the last few months, but I’m fully converted. As I said, I was nervous it would impart a sea-side taste to the food I cooked it with, but I was pleasantly surprised that it really does enhance the flavour of foods it is cooked with (in a very un-seaweed-y way!), and is my new secret ingredient in homemade stock.
I now add a strip into the pot whenever I make stocks and soups so I can reap the nutritional benefits of seaweed without even realizing it, plus it cuts cooking time and boosts flavour! Cooked kombu can also be sliced up and eaten (again, a much milder flavour than you might imagine), and adding it to salads or soups is a an easy way to pack more valuable nutrients into your day.
How to cook with dried kombu:
- Do not wipe kombu prior to use, as the white powder contains a lot of the flavour. (However, remove any dirt if you see it!)
- It is only necessary to soak kombu if your recipe has a short cooking time: cover kombu with cold water and soak for approximately 20 minutes, until it begins to soften and open up. Use the soaking water in your recipe, as it is very nutritious, or you can reserve it to cook with at another time.
- If you are adding kombu to rice or vegetable cooking water (or anything with a short cooking time), you can store the kombu in the fridge and reuse it a second time in cooking water before slicing and eating it.
- Store dried kombu in an airtight container away from sunlight and moisture. It should last a couple of years if you store it properly.
Soups, Stews & Cooking Beans:
Add a 4-6” strip to the cooking water in soups, stews, beans, rice or vegetables (you can use less if you are only cooking a small amount of food). Once the kombu is cooked, remove it from the pot, slice into thin strip and add back into the recipe, or save for a salad.
Cover the kombu in water and simmer until tender (time will vary depending on the thickness of the kombu, and if you soaked it.) Remove from water and slice. Store cooked kombu in the fridge.
Roasted Powder (Seasoning Condiment):
I have not tried this but it is on my list of things to make. Break the kombu into pieces, and heat in a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until the kombu is toasted and crispy. Crumble the pieces into a mortar and pestle and grind into a powder. Use it is a salt substitute and sprinkle over veggies, salads, grains or soups.