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6 Most Popular Seaweed Used in Japanese Cuisine

seaweed used in japanese cuisine

In this article, we look at the most popular types of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine and how to use them. If you’re curious about cooking with Japanese seaweeds but unsure where to start, this is for you.

From the savory nori used in sushi rolls to the earthy hijiki found in stews and salads, there is a huge variety of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine that is both delicious and packed with nutrients. Choosing the right seaweed for the right application can be tricky, however, for those of us still new to it.

Here we discuss 6 popular Japanese seaweeds (Nori, Kombu, Wakame, Mekabu, Hijiki, Kanten), including how they are harvested, prepared, and enjoyed in traditional Japanese dishes. Whether you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine or looking to expand your culinary horizons, this article is a must-read for anyone interested in the fascinating world of Japanese seaweeds.

Types of Seaweed used in Japanese cuisine

Nori – #1 Most Popular Seaweed used in Japanese Cuisine

  • Form: Sheets, powder
  • Flavor: Savory, salty
  • Common Uses: Sushi wraps, snacks, garnish, seasoning

Considered by many to be one of the most well-known types of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine, Nori features a salty yet savory taste that is great dried and when used as a wrap. Not only is nori used to wrap rice balls, but it is the most common variety of seaweed used in making sushi rolls. In Japan, the seaweed is also sold in dry form as a snack that can be eaten on the go.

Beyond all of the flavorful goodness that nori has to offer, it also serves a practical purpose in Japanese cuisine. That is, nori is used to hold the rice in a sushi roll together, and adds a protective layer allowing you to pick up the rice without it sticking to your hands.

Nori can be either farmed or harvested within its natural environment. The seaweed is pressed into extremely thin streets which are either shredded or dried out. The process of preparing nori is very similar to that of making paper. In paper form, nori is used to wrap food. In its shredded form, it is used as a garnish on rice bowls. In its powdered form, nori it is even used to add flavor and texture to meals. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, nori is a very flavorful seaweed.

In Japan, you can find a wide variety of nori that is flavored with a number of different additives including sesame oil, soy sauce, and salt. These flavorful snacks are eaten in Japan similar to that of a potato chip in the Western world.

nori japanese seaweeds
NORI is the most common and well-known of all Japanese seaweeds

Kombu – #2 Most Popular Seaweed used in Japanese Cuisine

  • Form: Dried strips, powder
  • Flavor: Savory
  • Common Uses: Stock, soup, salad, stir-fries, seasoning

Off the coast of northern Japan in Hokkaido, kombu is harvested every year. This leathery-textured seaweed is known for having a very high iron and calcium content, and a very savory flavor. Because of the way that it is prepared, it must be completely rehydrated before being used. Next to nori, kombu is the second most popular seaweed used in Japanese cuisine, and is considered to be an essential ingredient to virtually all recipes.

Another popular way of preparing kombu is to caramelize it in soy sauce to create tsukudani. In preparation, it is cooked slowly in soy sauce with a little bit of sugar until it becomes chewy and soft, and then it is served as a condiment on top of rice, or as an ingredient in salads.

One of the more interesting ways of preparing kombu, is to steep dried out pieces of the seaweed in hot water in order to create kombu-cha, a very popular tea in Japan. It is a healthy beverage that is consumed on a regular basis throughout not only Japan, but other parts of Asia as well.

kombu seaweed japanese cuisine
KOMBU is another common seaweed used in Japanese cooking

Wakame – #3 Most Popular Japanese Seaweeds

  • Form: Dried, fresh, shredded
  • Flavor: Mild, sweet
  • Common Uses: Miso soup, salads, pickled vegetables, stir-fries

Considered by some to be the third most popular seaweed in Japan, wakame offers a milder yet sweeter flavor to popular dishes. It is commonly added to miso soup, which is a staple in just about every Japanese restaurant around the world. Between the months of February and June, wakame is harvested freshly from the sea and dried out for year-round use. It can be easily rehydrated by soaking it in water or just about any type of liquid.

Not only is wakame commonly used in miso soup, it is also added to a wide variety of salads and is the main ingredient in vinegar-pickled vegetables known as sunomono. Because of its ease of use, Japanese will even stir-fry it in order to create a treat known as yaki-wakame.

wakame japanese seaweed
WAKAME is popular in various Japanese soups

Mekabu

  • Form: Dried, fresh, shredded
  • Flavor: Sweet, slimy texture
  • Common Uses: Condiment, topping

In Japan, not only do they consume the leafy part of the wakame seaweed, they also consume the flowering part known as mekabu. This slimy yet sweet seaweed has a briny texture and is found just above the roots of the wakame plant.

Mekabu can be purchased in 3 different forms, fresh, shredded, or even dried out. While many Westerners tend to shy away from the sliminess of the seaweed, others find the flavor to be very refreshing. It is best when mixed with vinegar and soy sauce. In Japan, it is commonly used as a topping for rice and a condiment for noodles.

Hijiki

  • Form: Dried, fresh
  • Flavor: Earthy, nutty
  • Common Uses: Soup, stew, salads

Known for its essential minerals and dietary fiber, Hijiki is another very popular seaweed used in Japanese cuisine. This particular seaweed is collected from the coastlines of Japan, and features a knobby, yet branchlike appearance. Despite its ocean like flavor, many people enjoy its earthy yet nutty taste.

After harvesting, Hijiki is then dried out and shipped to local grocery stores. Like most dried seaweed, this particular variety can be easily reconstituted and warm water or any other type of liquid. Hijiki is always best when it is consumed fresh.

Hijiki is used in a wide variety of soups and stews. The most popular soup dish that uses hijiki is called ochazuke. Hijiki is also added to Japanese salads along with tofu, lotus root, and a wide variety of other popular Japanese vegetables.

Kanten

  • Form: Dried powder, threads, flakes
  • Flavor: Gelatinous texture, flavorless
  • Common Uses: Dessert, thickening agent (agar agar)

Lastly, we have kanten. This seaweed is also known throughout Asia and the rest of the world as agar agar. Unlike the other types of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine, kanten is actually an extract of the plant. It is a gelling agent that is used in order to make custards, puddings, as well as Japanese wagashi. While most other types of seaweed are used to make main dishes, kanten is used almost entirely for desserts.

Vegetarians around the world consume large amounts of kanten on a regular basis. While most other forms of gelatin and jellies are manufactured from animals, kanten is purely plant-based. Although not as firm as animal-based gelatins, it is the perfect substitute for just about any recipe. This particular product is sold in stick, flakes, threads, and powdered forms.

Just like animal-based gelatins, kanten is prepared by bringing water to a boil, wherein the extract is then dissolved, flavored, and colored. Once it is ready, it is poured into a flat baking pan or other dish and allowed to cool. As the temperature begins to decrease, the kanten begins to set up.

kanten agar agar seaweed used in japanese cuisine
KANTEN (AGAR AGAR) is mostly used in Japanese desserts and sweet cuisine for it’s jelly-like texture

Final Thoughts on Japanese Seaweeds

We hope this article has given you a good introduction to Japanese seaweeds, and the many wonderful types of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine. The most popular types of seaweed and algae you will find in Japanese cuisine are easily Nori, Kombu and Wakame, in that order of popularity. If you are new to the world of seaweed in Japanese cuisine, then starting with these is an easy starting point.

However, don’t neglect the others! As a vegetarian, I personally love using Kanten (agar agar) as a substitute for gelatin in jelly desserts. As well as being vegan-friendly, agar-agar forms a jelly that remains solid at room temperature, until gelatin which must be kept cool otherwise it melts.

But perhaps the easiest way to start incorporating seaweed into your Japanese cooking is to simply throw a few pieces of wakame into your miso soup. It has a meaty, chewy texture that compliments the soup nicely – simply rehydrate the dried wakame pieces in cold water for a few minutes, then add to soup. But beware, a little goes a long way… one piece of dried wakame will expand to about 3-4 times it’s volume once rehydrated!

Now that you’ve learnt about Japanese seaweeds, have a look at our other edible seaweed guides. In our fussy eaters guide to seaweed we talk about how safe it is to eat seaweed and how to introduce seaweed into your diet if you’re feeling anxious or apprehensive about it, and in our Top 40 Edible Seaweeds guide we list and describe the most popular edible seaweeds and algae across the world.

Happy seaweeding!