Found throughout the country, although Tokushima’s is considered the best, wakame is a type of seaweed is harvested from May to June. Since the Nara period, its anti-ageing properties have been recognized. Fresh, it is used in sunomono vinegared food, suimono clear soup, and in dashi stock. Wakame udon (pictured below) is always one of the least expensive items on an udon shop menu.
Dried wakame is also commonly used, including ranboshi (dried unpretentiously on the nearest beach); shioboshi wakame, washed in salt water and dried; or shio nuki wakame, washed only in plain water with no salt and dried. Wakamejiru is a flavorful soup. It blends well with konbu kelp.
Nori sea laver is best known in its dried and toasted from as the outer layer of norimaki sushi wrapped in nori. Small sheets are used to scoop up rice mixed with raw egg in a typical ryokan breakfast. It is often added to soba and ramen dishes particularly in Kanto. It is mixed with salt and sesame for use in furikake a savoury topping sprinkled on plain white rice, and is an ingredient in shichimi-togarashi seven spice mix. A little square of nori is often included in a tempura no moriawase mixed tempura dish.
The role of konbu or kobu or kombu kelp in Japanese cooking cannot be under-estimated, as it is a key ingredient in dashi stock. Ma-konbu, growing to almost 2m in length is harvested from Hokkaido’s Uchiura Bay, where it is also known as yamadash konbu. From the northern islands of Rebun and Rishiri, rishiri konbu is excellent for dashi, as is rausu konbu from Hokkaido’s Shakotan peninsula.
Hijiki is a black, spiky looking, but soft, seaweed. It is good sautéed in shoyu with soy beans, a dish called hijiki-mame. Taken from Japan’s Pacific coast, it has proven to prevent hardening of the arteries. What’s more, it strengthens teeth, is nutritionally good for in-utero babies’ bones, and is economical. Folklore tells us that, hijiki turns your hair a shiny black, however, as one grandmother in rural Gunma Prefecture told me, “It may not work with foreigners”.