Seaweed has been consumed and celebrated in Japan for thousands of years. Its delicious salinity exemplifies the taste of umami. Two celebrated Japanese chefs talk about their passion for this oceanic culinary wonder food – and their concerns for its future.
A gastronomic legacy
Eating vegetables from the sea is no recent trend in Japan – in fact there is evidence that seaweed has been consumed here since the fourth century. This is perhaps not surprising given the fact Japan is an island nation. With more than 400 inhabited islands and 30,000km of coastline, seaweed, together with fish and shellfish, has almost always been foraged and consumed by people in coastal communities.
The ancient Japanese recognized the wealth of essential minerals, vitamins and important trace elements contained in seaweed. Japan’s oldest law, the Taiho Ritsuryo, even lists seaweed as an option for tax payment. Consumed by aristocrats and noblemen in Japan’s ancient capitals, it was even offered to the kami, the Japanese deities.
Praise of seaweed is also found in Japan’s oldest poem collection, the Manyoshu, compiled around the same time as the law in the 8th century. More than 100 epic poems talk about foraging for seaweed as food.
Later, during Japan’s feudal period (Edo Period from 17th to 19th century), seaweed harvesting and farming was commercially organized and seaweed became a regular part of the country’s diet. Regions began to specialize in producing certain species of seaweed, which led to a proliferation of local and provincial seaweed dishes.
Today, seaweed is globally regarded as the quintessential ingredient in Japanese cooking, revered by chefs and diners alike. The Japanese eat up to 9kg of seaweed per person every year.
Yet for all its role as a staple in people’s diets, the irony is seaweed often remains invisible in many Japanese dishes, used as a crucial flavoring components but not always glimpsed in its original form. “All cooking in Japan starts with kombu (kelp), which is used for making dashi” says Shinichiro Takagi, who presides over two Michelin-star restaurant Zeniya in Kanazawa City. “This is a soup stock that forms the basis of almost all Japanese dishes. Kombu has individual differences which depend on the conditions of the ocean where it grows. In this way it is very delicate.”
For Chef Takagi, dashi is the best way to introduce seaweed to someone who has never eaten Japanese food before. “It is best to introduce seaweed gradually, to let people notice its richness through tasting this soup stock. After that, the combination of seaweed with other ingredients depends on the chef's sensibilities.”
It’s a similar story at three Michelin-star Kashiwaya Restaurant in Osaka, where Chef Hideaki Matsuo, similarly admires the capability of kelp to amplify and augment other flavors. “Above all, broth made from kelp has an unparalleled ability to enhance the taste of other ingredients and bring out the best in them” he says.
So much more than sushi
Outside of Japan, knowledge about the culinary uses of seaweed is relatively limited, although many chefs are catching on and educating consumers about its seemingly magic culinary potential.
“Awareness of seaweed as an ingredient seems to have spread internationally by sushi, but in Japanese cooking there are so many more dishes that use different kinds of seaweed,” says Chef Matsuo.
In fact, there are eight common edible species of seaweed used on a daily basis in Japan. They are used in all styles of eating – from home-cooking to izakaya, Japan’s casual eating and drinking outlets, and as a crucial element in kaiseki, the country’s most refined high-end cuisine.
In addition to kombu, Chef Matsuo uses three types of brown algae – wakame, hijiki and mozuku; two types of red algae – asakusa nori and tengusa; and two types of green algae – aonori and aosa. There are many vinegared and simmered dishes as well as stews and soups that contain these types of seaweed, and he cooks with them all year-round.
These practices are now spreading throughout the rest of the world, as appreciation grows of its umami-rich variety of flavors, nutritious qualities – and its role in planetary health thanks to it ability to store enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. “I was surprised to see how chefs in New York and in Paris experiment with seaweed in a very creative way” adds Chef Takagi.
Protecting coastal heritage
Satoumi, literally ‘village and ocean’, describes traditional coastal communities in Japan where people have been co-existing with the sea for centuries. Fishers and seaweed farmers have managed the diverse ecosystem in a way that supports communities’ livelihoods without compromising – and in fact reinforcing - nature’s biodiversity.
Seaweed sustains ocean life as the primary food source for many sea creatures, including some of the most highly prized seafood in Japanese cuisine: abalone and sea urchin. Their dependence on seaweed, and in turn on the continued health of the oceans, is a stark reminder of the delicate interdependence of oceanic biodiversity, especially when global warming is combined with humankind’s voracious appetite. A rise in ocean temperatures, as well as polluted waters, are the main culprits putting seaweed harvests in danger.
“Abalone steak has been Zeniya’s signature dish since my father’s generation. Nowadays it becomes more and more difficult to get good abalone as there are problems with the seaweed” says Chef Takagi. His younger brother, an executive chef at the restaurant, goes to the harbour every day at 4am to secure the best abalone – and to talk to the fishermen about the condition of the ocean.
“Luckily our local government has a strong passion to raise awareness of satoumi. This is why I love to live and work here and use local ingredients, such as abalone, in my restaurant” he adds.
Speaking up for the ocean
“There are concerns about the drastic decline of seaweed species in the seas around Japan in recent years” warns Chef Matsuo. “The type and quality of kelp and other seaweed harvested in each region of Japan is unique, and the locals depend on it for their livelihoods. A decline in ocean resources becomes a life-and-death issue for them.”
Japan’s chefs, and those in the wider world, today have an increasingly important role to play in helping perpetuate seaweed culinary culture and preserving the way of life of ancient coastal communities. But seaweed can only answer what we ask of it if we source and farm it responsibly. Meeting rising demand, unsustainably, could have grave consequences for the future of the planet.
“We chefs want to work in such a way that our small actions have a big impact on the world of food" says Chef Matsuo. “To this end we must rethink our values regarding food and not turn a blind eye to inconvenient issues. Problems related to the global environment, especially the depletion of marine resources, is something we must tackle head on.”