From flotsam to superfood! This ingredient might ruin your swim, but it will do wonders for your diet.

As you walk along the beach, you might stumble across a mass of big, green, tangled-up seaweed that resembles a frightening sea monster, but what you’re really passing up is a relative of Ja- pan’s best-kept secret.

Known as the vegetable of the sea, kombu (edible sea kelp) is a quintessential Japanese pantry in- gredient with extraordinary health benefits. It has been a part of the country’s cuisine for so long that it is literally as old as history—today, its exact origins are unknown. Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, is where the earliest kombu consumption has been recorded (as far back as 500 BC), and it is still the source of over 95 per cent of the nation’s kombu. When trading increased between Hokkaido and the rest of Japan around AD 1200, kombu started appear- ing on plates in all regions of the country. In fact, it became such an important commodity that a “kombu road” was established as a sea trade route. Kombu’s ease and quickness of cultivation along with its nutrition density make it one of the most efficient foods in the natural world.

The ultimate superfood, kombu and other sea vegetables are a great source of protein and are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In fact, they are higher in vitamins and minerals per ounce than any other food group. The list of health benefits goes on for these plants: they can reduce cholesterol and detoxify radioactive and metallic elements from the body, and they’re effective against bacteria that have a resistance to penicillin. Sea vegetables are also super rich in calcium as well as in iodine, a key element for growth and development. Because of its high iodine content, however, people with hyperthy- roidism should avoid eating kombu.

You may have heard of kombucha, the fermented black tea that has recently gained popularity in the West for its health benefits. Although the kombucha you find in Japan is made from actual kombu, what we call “kombucha” in the West is a misnomer and actually has nothing to do with sea kelp. If you want to find kombu in Canada, skip the tea and look for the actual product.

Kombu is usually cooked in its dry or powdered form, and it can be found in Japanese and East Asian markets—or increasingly at health food stores. Because of its versatility, kombu can be used in a variety of recipes, but one of its most basic uses is in soups and stocks (dashi). Surpris- ingly mild and un-fishy in taste, kombu works with virtually any kind of dish and actually boosts other flavours while also adding tons of minerals, nutrients and umami. If you’re using dried kom- bu, all you do is add a strip or two to your pot and let it simmer with the other ingredients until the kombu is soft and cooked. At that point, you can cut your kombu strips into little pieces and add them back into the soup, or save them for later use—like jazzing up a salad.

Photo by Tomo.Yun

A littel taste of kombu

Kombu is Japan’s quietly omnipresent superfood and may be the key to a healthy population. November 15 is National Kombu Day, coinciding with the year’s harvested kombu entering the market.

  • Kombu is a fantastic beauty food that boosts your metabolism, combats aging and nourishes the skin.
  • There are seven different kombu species that you will typically find on your plate—along with countless others that aren’t usually consumed.
  • Ramen masters are very particular about the species of kombu they use in their soup stock.
  • Over 90 per cent of Japan’s kombu is culti- vated in Hokkaido, yet the prefecture has one of the country’s lowest consumption rates.
  • Okinawa prefecture has the highest kombu consumption on Earth—and the oldest residents!
  • Kombu is a popular healthy snack for kids in Japan.
  • Limiting kombu consumption is just as important as including it, as its high iodine content can lead to thyroid problems.