Updated: September 08, 2016
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5 Types Of The Most Consumed Seaweeds In Japan

Even people who aren't very familiar with Japanese food tend to have heard that seaweed plays a part in many of its dishes. This is true especially of traditional foods, like sushi rolls, rice balls, and even ramen, but do you know why?

Sumptuous Seaweeds!

As a mountainous island nation with a relatively small landmass for growing food, Japan has managed, even in the days before widespread international food distribution, to feed herself by turning to the seas around her for nourishment and inspiration. This has meant that besides fish, the Japanese have discovered a lot of different kinds of sea vegetables which are not only filling and full of goodness, but also delicious to eat!

For people whose diets do not normally or traditionally contain seaweeds (or sea vegetables, as they are now sometimes collectively called), or for people discovering Japanese cuisine for the first time, knowing the names and the difference between one type of seaweed and another can be daunting. So, let's have a look at four different kinds of seaweed eaten regularly in Japan, and learn how they're used.

#1 Nori

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Nori (海苔) is the most familiar of all the seaweeds, and although it looks green, is actually a type of red algae. Sometimes called laver, or just “seaweed” it is now most commonly known by its Japanese name, and is the seaweed that looks like paper and is used to wrap sushi rolls and onigiri (rice balls).

Nori has been eaten in Japan since ancient times, but was originally consumed as a kind of paste.
It wasn't until the Edo period (in the 1750's) that the Japanese got the idea to process nori paste using papermaking methods – and so the form in which we know and enjoy it best today, was born!
You can find nori being used not only in sushi and onigiri, but also as a seasoning in noodle and soup dishes (like ramen), sprinkled on top of other dishes for decorative effect, or even packaged and sold as snacks!

#2 Ao-nori

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Aonori (青海苔), although it's written and pronounced very similarly to nori, and means “blue green” nori, is actually a different species of sea algae to regular nori. Also known as laver in England and Wales (where “laver bread” was once regularly eaten as part of the traditional cuisine), aonori in Japan is used to flavour a variety of dishes.

Unlike in Wales, where aonori is used as a paste and fried, in Japan it is chiefly bought and used as a dried and powdered ingredient. Sprinkling aonori on your food releases its powerful aroma, and you can find it in Japan being sprinkled over favourites like yakisoba (noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), used to flavour tempura, and even as a flavouring for potato chips!

#3 Konbu

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Konbu (昆布) is an edible sea kelp which grows in long strips, and probably looks like what you think of if you picture seaweed washing up on the beach – but don't let that put you off eating it!

Konbu is rich in umame (flavorfulness – actually, glutamic acid), and for this reason it is one of the main ingredients in Japan for making dashi (soup stock). Because it brings out the natural flavour of other ingredients, konbu dashi is widely used in Japan not just for making soups, but also for flavouring other dishes, especially sushi rice. It is generally sold in dried form for boiling into dashi, but you can also find it pickled in vinegar. Sometimes you will find it topping sushi, or chopped into fine strips and made into a very flavourful chilled side dish called tsukudani. Konbu has quite a chewy or gelatinous texture that can seem strange at first, but it is very delicious! Sometimes, you can also find a Japanese tea called konbucha, which is made from dried and powdered konbu.

Konbu has also received a lot of attention in recent years because scientists have discovered that by feeding it to a genetically modified form of e.coli, they can produce ethanol, which could be used as a biologically-sustainable fuel source, especially on boats.

#4 Hijiki

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Hijiki (鹿尾菜) is another seaweed that has been eaten in Japan for centuries. It is a type of brown algae that grows wild on rocky coasts. It is usually sold in dried form, and looks black.

It is eaten as a side dish, either by itself, or added to fish or vegetables, and is sometimes used to flavour rice for sushi.
Probably because of the anti-grey hair B vitamin which it contains, hijiki has been believed for hundreds of years in Japan to promote healthy and lustrous black hair.

#5 Wakame

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Wakame (若布) is another kind of sea kelp similar to konbu, but much more tender and succulent. It is classed as a brown algae, even though it is bright green! It grows abundantly in the northern Atlantic as well as on the coasts of Japan, and has been known for centuries by the Anglo-saxons, who called it dabberlocks or wing kelp, although in more modern times, English-speaking people might know it as sea-mustard. In Japan, it is the third most popular seaweed (after nori and konbu), and you can find it accompanying root vegetables or fish, as a tasty addition to miso soup, or even in salads, either mixed with other vegetables, or all on its own. It is especially tasty with fresh green fava beans! It is an extremely rich source of of Folic Acid (a B vitamin), and for this reasons, many pregnant women or nursing mothers in Japan like to eat it to keep themselves and their babies healthy.

So now that you have had a proper introduction to the delicious seaweeds that can be found in Japanese cooking, you can feel confident about trying them! Hopefully you will really enjoy them, and who knows, they may even make you feel healthier!
Japanese food!!!!

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