Whether or not you are a connoisseur of Japanese cuisine, just an occasional consumer of Japanese food or have never tried the intriguing gastronomic smorgasbord that is the cuisine of the Land of the Rising Sun, you may have noticed how seaweed plays a prominent role in Japanese cuisine be it Wakame, Nori, Kombu, Mozuku and the many other types of seaweed that are used in Japanese food. You may or may not have also heard about the seaweed called Wakame that is used often in the Japanese culinary tradition but may have no idea about what it exactly is. Whatever your circumstances may be, you have come to the right place to gain a better understanding about the fascinating seaweed that is Wakame as well as how it differs from other types of seaweed that you may have seen in Japanese cooking. I hope I have piqued your interest. Let us now begin this exploration of Wakame and some of the different kinds of seaweed that you may encounter in Japanese cuisine.
Let’s get the ball rolling…
Wakame (pronounced Wah-ka-may) is a kind of seaweed. The name Wakame is derived from the Japanese language and carries the meaning of “young seaweed”. Seaweed is a kind of marine algae that includes Wakame among its family of lifeforms which encompass a diverse variety of different species.
With regards to how scientists have classified Wakame, it has been designated to be a kind of kelp that is a type of brown algae of which there are many different kinds. Beyond that you will discover that some of the types of seaweed used in Japanese cooking that will be discussed here also belong to the same family of brown algae/seaweed. Read on to find out more.
What is Nori?
Nori is a kind of red seaweed/algae that is often processed to make popular dry snacks in different parts of Asia. It is also very famously known as the ingredient that is used to wrap the popular Japanese foods such as sushi and onigiri which you may have come across before.
What is Wakame?
As mentioned briefly above, Wakame is a species of kelp that is part of a subspecies of brown seaweed/algae that is a major part of Japanese cuisine where it is used as an ingredient in many different ways for various dishes such as miso soup and noodle based dishes such as ramen to name a few.
What is Kombu?
Kombu, is another type of brown seaweed/algae ( It is sometimes identified as a kind of kelp) that oftentimes is used as a part of stock (known as Dashi) making in Japanese cuisine. The name of the stock which uses Kombu is called Kombu Dashi in Japanese and is used as a part of soups (like miso soup) and other broths either on their own or with noodles like Ramen or Udon as a base. In the case of noodle soups, the soup base where Kombu is used is called mentsuyu Kombu is very well known for its strong flavour profile among other attributes.
What is Hijiki?
Hijiki is a type of brown seaweed/algae that are known for their striking stripe-like appearance. This seaweed also is a prominent ingredient in Japanese cuisine and is often used as a garnish/seasoning to add flavour and vibrancy to the food on which it is used. It is often garnished on rice dishes like onigiri rice balls or is used in stir-fried dishes.
What is Arame?
Arame is a kind of brown seaweed/algae that is also known by the alternate name of sea oak. It is also used extensively in Japanese cuisine in a variety of ways as a garnish/seasoning for a variety of foods such as rice dishes.
What is Mozuku?
Mozuku is a kind of brown seaweed/algae that is well known for its high nutritional values and its unique threadlike appearance and taste. It is a very popular food ingredient in Okinawa where ninety nine percent of the world’s Mozuku is produced. Mozuku is often used in noodle dishes, miso soup, tempura and can even be eaten on its own as a special vinegared dish called Mozuku-su
Wakame vs Nori
When making a comparison between Wakame and Nori, one of the major differentiators is how both seaweeds taste. Wakame has a slightly sweet flavor, while Nori has a slightly salty and roasted taste that has a hint of nuttiness to it too. Another difference is the colour of the two seaweeds. Nori has a dark green pigmentation, while Wakame has a brown colour to it. Yet another difference between Nori and Wakame is that Wakame is considered brown algae while Nori is surprisingly considered to be a kind of red algae (this is due to the fact that Nori belongs to a family of algae that are known for having red pigmentation prior to being prepared for consumption)
Wakame vs Kombu
We now move on to Kombu. As mentioned above it is a popular kind of kelp that is a type of brown algae like Wakame. While they may be part of the same family of seaweed/algae, there is a difference between them in terms of how they taste. As mentioned above, Wakame has a slightly sweet taste while in contrast Kombu has a savoury taste (a flavour that is sometimes referred to as umami). Yet another factor that sets these two seaweeds apart is their texture, Wakame has a sort of silky texture whereas Kombu has a more sturdy texture to it.
Wakame vs Hijiki
Hijiki is another interesting type of seaweed that has some attributes that set it apart from Wakame. For one, Hijiki turns black once it is processed while Wakame has some brownish pigmentation to it.
Wakame vs Arame
When it comes to the characteristics that differentiate Wakame and Arame, one quality that comes to mind. is the colour of Arame. Arame is black in colour while Wakame has a brown colouration. Another distinguishing attribute of Arame is its straggly appearance in contrast to the appearance of Wakame which tends to not look as clumped up as Arame does.
Wakame vs Mozuku
When Wakame and Mozuku are compared against one another, a few differences come to mind. One of them is the difference in texture between the two seaweeds. Mozuku has a more slimy texture in comparison to Wakame which has a more silky texture. There is also a difference in appearance between the two seaweeds, Mozuku has a filament like appearance in contrast to Wakame. Another key difference between the two is the amount of a sulfated polysaccharide known as Fucodian that is found in a variety of brown algae species which include Wakame, Hijiki and Kombu. That being said, Mozuku is regarded to have the highest amount of Fucodian in contrast to other brown seaweeds such as Wakame, which is a key difference between the two types of seaweed.
Health benefits of Wakame
One reason (besides its intriguing taste) that Wakame features so prominently in the Japanese food repertoire is the perhaps little known fact that Wakame like many seaweeds (including the other varieties of seaweeds previously mentioned here) have a variety of health benefits due to its beneficial nutritional value which includes a variety of vitamins(such as Vitamin C, minerals and a few other special nutritional attributes. For now, let us take a closer look at one aspect of Wakame that has a few health benefits.
As mentioned above in the section discussing some of the various differences between Wakame and Mozuku, Wakame has a polysaccharide sulfate molecule known as Fucoidan. Fucoidan, according to a study, has been shown to be a potentially powerful weapon that can be used to battle cancer. A possible reason why this is so, is due to the fact that according to another research study, Fucoidan could have the ability to help boost immune function within the body which leads to it being more robust, thus enabling a more effective immune response to threats such as cancerous cells.
Knowledge leads to greater understanding and appreciation
Knowledge is indeed power, when you become even just a little more aware about anything or in this case, the unique characteristics of different seaweeds, it leads to make ideal purchasing choices for your loved ones or your restaurant business, as you will have a greater understanding of different seaweed products which enable you to choose a product that best fulfills your specific requirements and culinary needs. Hopefully this primer on Wakame and other kinds of seaweed utilised in Japanese cuisine specifically, has helped you to better discern what kind of seaweed would appeal to you most and has given you a nuanced understanding and appreciation for Wakame and seaweed products in general.