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Kombu & Kelp – What’s the Difference?

kombu leaves

Kombu is the Japanese word for dried sea kelp.
Kombu/Kelp/Haidai, are large seaweeds (algae) belonging to the brown algae (Phaeophyceae) in the order Laminariales. There are about 30 different genera* around the world (see Laminariales for more information).

Kelp seaweeds grow in underwater “forests”  in shallow oceans. They require nutrient-rich water with temperatures between 6 and 14 °C (43 and 57 °F) and are known for their rapid growth rate. A kombu strip or kombu leaf is just a piece of kelp which has been dried flat for ease of use in the kitchen.

Kombu is known for the important role it plays in Japanese cuisine and is also eaten in other parts of Asia. The exact type of kelp made into kombu (naturally dried) will vary according to location. In Japan, for instance, the ‘Saccharina japonica’ kelp is the most prolific.  All of the parts of the kelp plant are used, including the thick stalks and fronds (leaves in seaweed vocabulary).

Kelp Varieties

Various species of kelp grow around the world, according to climate, current and conditions.  In New Zealand, we have several different kelps, the better known are Bull Kelp (Durvillia), Macrocytis kelp (or South Island Kelp) and Ecklonia Kelp (or North Island kelp).

Kelp and Kombu – A Wonderful Source of Umami

Kelp is highly valued for its abundance of essential minerals, vitamins, and trace elements, as well as its natural glutamic salts: a naturally sweet, superior flavor enhancer which creates the famous savory “fifth taste”, also known as ‘Umami‘ in Japanese cuisine.

When dried naturally, a thin layer of white powder emerges from the leaf, which is full of flavour. Often mistaken for mould, this is in fact the  amino acid glutamine. When preparing kombu, this powder should not be washed away, but if there is any foreign material the strip can simply be wiped clean with a slightly dampened cloth.

Kombu left exposed to air will become damp (like sea salt, the high quality minerals attract moisture) and its flavour will be reduced. We recommend keeping kombu in an air tight container. Damp kombu can be dried again under the sun or in a very low temperature oven (47 C or lower).

The white powder, ‘Glutamine’ is one of the 20 amino acids encoded by the standard genetic code. It is not recognized as an essential amino acid but may become important in certain situations, like intensive athletic training or certain gastrointestinal disorders. It is also said to be a superb brain fuel, and some people refer to it as a “smart-vitamin” – although it is in actual fact not a vitamin at all.

Making Kombu Strips and Leaves

Many different types of kelp can be used to make Kombu, and its preparation is very simple. In Japan, the whole seaweed is washed thoroughly with seawater, cut into 1 m lengths, folded and dried. The same process is used in New Zealand to prepare Pacific Harvest’s Kombu.

Cooking with Kelp and Kombu

Kombu/kelp is one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi, a soup stock used in a multitude of Japanese dishes. Making  dashi is simple: a strip of dried kombu (or a teaball filled with kelp granules) is placed in cold water , then heated to near-boiling; then the flakes of dried smoked bonito, a type of tuna, are added. The softened kombu is sometimes eaten after cooking. 

Add a small piece of kombu or kelp granules added to dried beans helps to tenderize them as they cook.

Other benefits from Kelp and Kombu

In 2010 a group of researchers at the University of Newcastle found that a fibrous material in sea kelp (called alginate) was better at preventing fat absorption than most over-the-counter slimming treatments in laboratory trials. As a food additive it may be used to reduce fat absorption and thus obesity. Kombu/kelp contains very little calories and is a popular diet food. It contains the most potassium of all the sea vegetables.  Kelp contains fucoidan, a type of polysaccharide known to activate the liver cells. It is said to also be effective in cleaning the blood and decreasing cholesterol levels. Find out more about kelp’s benefits by following the link.

Genera is a phyto-taxonomy (plant nomenclature & classification) term for ‘families’ which contain many ‘genus’ which themselves have many varieties. As an example, Pacific Harvest’s kelp is Ecklonia radiata: Class= Brown seaweed or Phaeophyceae, Order= Laminariales (kelps), Genera/Family= Alariaceae, Genus= Ecklonia and Specie= radiata. 

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