Secret ingredient: Kombu

ALESSANDRA ZECCHINI
Last updated 05:00 23/11/2012
Kombu
KOMBU IN ACTION: Smoked eel parfait with white soy, kombu and seaweed.
Kombu
VITAL INGREDIENT: Kombu in its dried form.

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It's a staple in most Japanese dishes and traditionally believed to bring luck and prosperity to your table. But would you know what to do with kombu  - dried, fresh or pickled?

WHAT IS KOMBU?
Kombu is a kelp (seaweed or sea vegetable) and an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. It is generally sold dried, but it can also be eaten fresh or pickled. Dried kombu is mostly used to make dashi (Japanese stock) for miso soup and vegetables dishes, while pickled kombu is usually served with rice.

To use dried kombu place it in a pot with cold water, bring to a gentle simmer and cook on low for 20 minutes. Do not boil. Remove the kombu sheets before using the stock. The cooked kombu is quite tough to eat, so it is better to cut it into small strips before adding it to other dishes.

In macrobiotic cuisine kombu is used for cooking beans, especially chickpeas, and it is believed to help with flatulence (it is usually discarded once the beans are cooked).

In Japan kombu is often served at New Year, as it is a symbol of good luck and prosperity. Traditional New Year lunch boxes include kombumaki or kombu rolls made by laying carrot strips (or other Japanese vegetables) on cooked or soaked kombu sheets, which are then rolled up and secured with kampyo (gourd strips) before being simmered in a broth made with kombu dashi, soy sauce, sake and mirin.

WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
It has a mild sea flavour, mainly on its surface, therefore dried kombu leaves should never be washed, but simply wiped with a damp cloth. Lightly scraping the kelp with a knife will also help bring out the flavour.
 
WHERE CAN I FIND IT?
In Japanese, Korean and Chinese shops, in health food shops and often in well-stocked supermarkets.
 
WHAT CAN I USE IN ITS PLACE?
Wakame seaweed can also be used to make a fragrant stock in just a few minutes.
 
GOT ANY GOOD RECIPES USING IT?
To make kombu dashi scrape a couple of strips of dried kombu with a knife, then place in a pot with four to five cups of water. Bring to a simmer (uncovered) and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the kombu and add other ingredients, eg vegetables, tofu, or miso paste.

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Alessandra Zecchini is a member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers and a keen food blogger. She is the author of Sweet As, Savour, and Party Food for Girls (New Holland Publishers). She has also contributed to a number of books in New Zealand, Europe, Japan and Australia.

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