Kombu

Laminaria saccharina / Laminaria japonica

Herbs gallery - Kombu

Common names

  • Kombu

A Japanese term, kombu describes almost all types of edible kelp belonging to the Laminaria family. However, this term is generally associated with the species called Laminaria japonica. This particular variety of kelp is found growing profusely in the waters along the coastline in East Asia. This includes the coasts around Japan, some parts of China and in the region of the Korean peninsula. Over the years, kombu has become so popular that people in these countries cultivate this seaweed extensively on a commercial level. It is worth mentioning here that majority of kombu available in the stores actually come from various kelp farms. Kombu is sold in a number of forms, including fresh, dried, frozen and also pickled. While kombu is generally used to add essence to a wide variety of dishes, most commonly it is possibly used in the Japanese broth called dashi.

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People who reside close to the areas where kombu is grown can easily avail this kelp fresh. This kelp can also be consumed raw directly after collecting it from the sea. However, almost all cooks usually prepare some sort of a dish with this seaweed before serving it. Usually, they cut kombu into fine slices, marinate it and generally cook before consumption. The most popular cooking methods of kombu include pan-frying and steaming. Nevertheless, some species of kelp require baking or grilling before eating. As discussed above, kombu can also be consumed raw. However, many people who have eaten this kelp raw have complained that this seaweed is somewhat tough and needs to be treated with heat to make it softer.

Usually most kombu cultivators flash-freeze or quick-freeze this seaweed with a view to enhance its shelf life. The plant is at its peak just a few days after harvesting it. Therefore, freezing the plants helps to keep it viable for a longer period, enabling growers to transport it to distant places. Moreover, quick-freezing also helps the cooks to be more flexible and have more time to prepare and serve it. Often, the flavour of frozen kombu is somewhat different from the fresh plants. However, it is possible to use the fresh as well as the frozen seaweed interchangeably in various dishes.

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It is essential to eat the fresh seaweed as soon as possible, within a few days of harvesting or purchasing it. However, dried as well as frozen kombu can be preserved and consumed after long periods. Provided you do not unpack the container, you can use kombu preserves and relishes even several years after you purchase it. However, once the seaweed relishes and preserves come in contact with the air, in most instances they should be consumed within two weeks. On the other hand, dehydrated kombu flakes and strips remain in good condition for nearly an indefinite period. However, it is best to consume them within a year or so from the date of dehydrating them, because this is the time when their flavour is best.

Parts used

Seaweed.

Uses

It has been established that various sea vegetables, including kombu, possess remarkable detoxifying properties. Such detoxifying properties of these sea vegetables are attributed to two aspects. First, inside the body, kombu possesses the ability to attach itself to heavy metals, thereby helping to expel them from our body naturally. Second, algae contains chlorophyll, which is not just simple, but potent too. Hence, consuming seaweed regularly is good for our health as it helps to provide our body with a potent dose of this phytochemical.

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Kombu contains lignans, which are known to cut down the incidences of breast cancer. Moreover, it is believed that they are responsible for lower rates of breast cancer among Japanese women, who usually take diets containing rich amounts of various sea vegetables, counting kombu.

In addition, it has been established that kombu or seaweed is an excellent source of several trace minerals, which are usually present in many dietary supplements. It has also been found that our body can utilize these trace minerals obtained from our diet better compared to those contained in pills.

It is said that kombu helps to improve the digestive process. Consuming kombu helps to enhance blood circulation and, at the same time, prevents bowel decay and constipation. Moreover, kombu also helps to maintain the equilibrium between alkalis and acids in our body. Kombu is also effective in preventing development of various forms of cancer, as it helps to control the blood pH levels.

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While consumption of kombu provided us with several health benefits, it has one major downside. This sea vegetable does not supply us with enough vitamin B12, which is essential for a robust nervous system. It also does not provide us with sufficient vitamin D, which is essential for the body to absorb calcium from ingested foods.

In a number of places, scientists have assessed the health benefits of kombu vis-à-vis kelp as an alternative source of energy. They have tried to study these two sea vegetables in the context of the time taken by them to grow and also the time taken by each of them to mature as well as regenerate. When kelp is mixed with Escherichia coli bacteria, it generates ethanol. Across the globe, people use ethanol to enhance gasoline as well as other fuels obtained from fossils.

Culinary uses

Kombu is being harvested and consumed by various cultures in Asia for several centuries. People generally eat the kelp raw, mostly shredded and added to seaweed salads. Alternatively, it is also eaten along with rice dishes and meat preparations. Often, chefs find that the rich salty flavour of kombu becomes more intense when it is dried. However, in several East Asian kitchens dried kelp strips are a staple. Generally, chefs add some kelp flakes to rice while it is boiling or cook meat dishes with it with a view to boost their recipes' flavour easily and quickly. There are a number of dishes that require the seaweed to remain in the preparation even after it has been cooked. However, generally, the seaweed is removed from the preparations once cooking is complete. It is used in the same way as the Europeans use bay leaf in their culinary.

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Kombu is found growing naturally in shallow waters. Harvesting this seaweed is comparatively easy and almost all parts of this plant are eaten. On its own, it is a vital source of several nutrients. In addition, it is added to various plain meals with a view to enhance their flavour without using any of the costly and more refined herbs or spices. People in Japan, China and the two Koreas use kombu liberally in their traditional meals. As a result, over the years several farms have come up in the coastal areas of these countries where people grow and harvest kombu for use in their foods.

In several places, chefs also use seaweed to make pickles. In fact, when you are preparing relishes you need this type of treatment. Generally, the other ingredients in relishes include bitter fruits or peppers. Often, such relishes are served in the form of a sauce together with seafood and/ or meat dishes. It is also used as a flavour enhancer. In Japan and China, many bars as well as traditional tea houses offer their guests bowls of kombu pickle. Alternatively, kombu chunks can be served separately or they may be placed over rice dishes. In addition, they may be consumed separately between meals.

You can increase the shelf life of the kombu and also enhance its usefulness by drying the seaweed. However, dried kombu tastes different, generally they are much more salty and their flavour is more concentrated compared to fresh kombu. This is the main reason why chefs usually use just a few kombu strips or flakes in their dishes, substituting larger amounts of the fresh seaweed.

Several dishes taste better when dried kombu is used in their preparation. As a result, many chefs in Asia will generally keep some dried kombu stripes or flakes handy for using them as essential seasoning or as a substitute for spices. For instance, dried kombu is essential to prepare a very well-liked Japanese soup base called dashi. The process involved in making dashi involves boiling kombu with fermented flakes of bonito. Dashi is an essential ingredient for several Japanese foods, for instance preparation of miso soup. Generally, chefs who prepare sushi also add some dried kombu to the rice that is used for making several varieties of sushi rolls.

In addition, several cooks usually wash or soak the dried kombu strips for a brief period prior to using this sea vegetable in foods. This is done with a view to get rid of a dusty white film that usually forms on the seaweed during the drying process. This type of film usually forms due to the starch, which evaporates from kombu during the dehydrating process. Although such powdery film is considered to be safe, it can influence the overall clarity or consistency of some dishes, especially some broths. While it is a common practice to remove the film before using kombu in cooking, the matter is entirely at the cook's discretion.

Constituents

Kombu is a sea algae belonging to the Laminaria family. It is widely believed that kombu is a powerhouse of various nutrients. Chemical analysis of this alga has shown that it contains elevated levels of iron, calcium, dietary fiber, and iodine in addition to low calories. This sea food does not contain any fat, whatsoever. Several experts have claimed that consumption of kombu helps to alleviate high blood pressure (hypertension). Moreover, it can also be employed for lowering the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood stream. However, dried out kombu usually contains elevated levels of salt as they grow in the saline water of sea. However, in general, kombu is said to be somewhat beneficial for our health.

Side effects and cautions

Consumption of sea vegetables such as kombu does not cause any problem in most people. However, foods belonging to this class have the potential to interact severely with some prescription drugs. In fact, people who are already taking drugs containing elevated levels of potassium, especially for treating thyroid dysfunction, should generally stay away from such foods. In any case, they should make it a point to check with their physician or health care provider before they incorporate kombu in their regular diet.

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