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Kombu & Kelp – What’s the Difference?

kombu leaves

Kombu is the Japanese word for dried sea kelp. In China it is called Haidai.
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). Kelps 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.

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).

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, A 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.

JAPANESE KOMBU, A TRADITION

Japan has a tradition of eating kombu that goes back for several centuries – traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet. Japan had a plentiful supply of kelp in its natural sea beds on Hokkaido. The naturally growing plants are biennial, harvested between June and October. Hooks of various types are attached to long poles and used to twist and break the seaweed from the rocky bottom.

CULTIVATION

As demand grew in the 1960s, attempts were made to develop artificial cultivation methods, but the two-year cycle meant the costs were too high. In the 1970s, forced cultivation was introduced, reducing the cultivation period to one year, similar to the system developed in China in the early 1950s. A lot of kombu on the market is from the species Saccharina japonica, which grows abundantly around the Japanese coast. More recently, it is extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. Over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated.

KOMBU AROUND THE WORLD

Since the 1960s, dried kombu has been exported from Japan to many countries. It was initially available only at specialised Asian food shops and restaurants, but has now become widely available in many specialty grocers. Previously China imported Kombu from Japan & Korea, but now China also cultivates Kelp on a large scale (information from FAO).

Harvesting & drying Kombu in Japan (photo from web-japan.org)

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 Kelp & Kombu, some of it is then milled into granules to be used as a seasoning. The small granules become soft when exposed to the moisture on food and look like cracked pepper. These granules can be used easily to make dashi.   Fill a tea ball with the kelp granules and follow the recipe below.

COOKING WITH KELP/KOMBU

Dried Japanese kelp, Kombu (photo from japanesekelp.com)

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. Ingestion of the seaweed is recommended because of the detoxifying properties of its fibre.

Use a teaball or infuser to contain the kelp granules during cooking

Add a small piece of kombu or kelp granules added to dried beans helps to tenderize them as they cook. (Click the link to find out more.)

SCIENTIFIC FINDINGS

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. 

Click here for a leaflet containing many recipes: Kombu-recipe-brochure  and Kelp Recipe Brochure

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