Why seaweed could be the next trendy Hong Kong food

Think seaweed in food and Japanese cuisine springs to mind, but it has long been used in other cuisines. Now chefs in Hong Kong are widening its use as a flavouring and garnish

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 5:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 5:00am

For most people, seaweed is synonymous with Japanese cuisine, where it’s used dried – pressed into sheets to make various types of sushi, and fresh, in salads and pickles. The Japanese are probably the most creative in the ways they incorporate the “vegetables of the sea” into their food, but they’re not the only ones to use it. Korean and Chinese chefs have used it for thousands of years, and it is also a feature of some European cuisines – and its use is growing.

At Sushi Dokoro Ikkei, a small fine-dining Japanese restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui, chef owner Kazuki Hirae explains that seaweed, and especially kelp, the largest form of seaweed, is a hidden ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

READ MORE: How seaweed can help in the fight against heart disease

“Many cooked Japanese dishes use dashi, a broth, and every chef’s dashi is different depending on the different kinds of kombu [kelp] they use, where they get it, and how it was dried,” says Hirare, through his wife Akie, who helped translate.

Sheets of dried kelp are placed in boiling water with finely shaved katsuo (dried and fermented skipjack tuna) then strained. The resulting light, clear broth is used as a base for miso soup, chawanmushi and other cooked dishes.

“Housewives can buy premade dashi in supermarkets, while chefs prepare dashi every morning and it’s used a lot in ramen shops and restaurants. It is used to season pork and fish,” Hirae says.

Before refrigerators, raw fish was wrapped in kelp to cure it and give it a longer shelf life. These days, good-quality sushi restaurants continue this tradition of wrapping the raw fish in kelp for a day or two, giving the fish a deeper flavour. “When you eat it, you have a different taste that’s more like the sea,” Hirae explains.

The chef uses nori for maki (rice and seafood rolls), tororo kombu, a finely shredded seaweed for garnishing slices of fresh fish, and sprinkles of kombu to season thinly sliced squid.

Other cuisines use seaweed, although it’s not as prevalent as in Japanese food. Chef Bjoern Alexander of Twenty-Six by Liberty in Central says algae was traditionally used to season Spanish dishes.

“When I worked in Spain about 15 years ago, they would steep seaweed in a pot of simmering water and then put a Dover sole in there and cook it for about 10 minutes. They didn’t need to use any salt and the end result was this umami flavour that was wow,” he recalls.

The German chef says he follows a similar practice of using the natural saltiness of the seaweed to bring out the flavour of ingredients. “When I came to Hong Kong five years ago, we used all kinds of salt. When you bite on rock salt, it’s extremely salty. But with seaweed, it has this umami flavour. It’s better than salt – it’s not too strong and it’s natural.”

Alexander shows a green seaweed called wakame from Japan, dulse from Korea, intriguing small tender green stems called sticky fingers that he enjoys nibbling on, and BlinQ Blossomsfrom South Africa, which are in season for only two months.

Because these kinds of seaweed are unlike anything most diners have seen before, Alexander is careful to present them with ingredients his customers are familiar with in order to make the dish more palatable.

In one of his dishes he complements a freshly shucked oyster with a crunchy floral seaweed, another is a poached egg with corn purée and uni garnished with sticky fingers.

“I think seaweed could be a trend. It could be moving more to [other] Asian [cuisines such as] Thai and Indonesian. I may have more seaweed on each of my menus. It’s quite special and people like it,” he says.

At Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, culinary director Richard Ekkebus recalls that as a child growing up in Holland, he picked salicornia, small tender stems that grow in salt marshes. “We would get what was about HK$100 a pound for them, but twice as much if we picked off the tips, the more tender part. That’s how I made my pocket money.”

These days, the Michelin two-star restaurant serves salicornia with lamb because the animals graze on these salty stems in Holland. “We would call the lamb ‘pre-salted’ because the saltiness is already in the meat,” Ekkebus explains, adding that it’s a complementary ingredient, much like duck served with corn, or rabbit with carrots.

We are not ready to eat insects, but we need to look for other sources of food, and the sea has a lot of it
Richard Ekkebus

He uses a variety of seaweed sourced primarily from Japan for freshness and to produce less of a carbon footprint.

“We’ve been using seaweed since I came to Hong Kong more than 10 years ago. We make dashi by grilling the fish bones on the wood fire then adding kelp to make fish stock. We were the first [in the city] to do seaweed crackers, which we serve with sea urchin.”

The restaurant also chargrills Miyazaki wagyu strip loin and finishes it with seaweed and duck foie gras served in a radish and seaweed broth, and with risotto with a spoonful of fresh nori to replace parmesan cheese.

Ekkebus says he first cooked with seaweed when he worked with Pierre Gagnaire more than 25 years ago. “We would make seaweed bread with dried seaweed dulse and wakame. And we used to make these breads that were served with certain seafood dishes. He was the first person that I know of who was using seaweed in Western cuisine.”

Ekkebus says in the past few years, there has been a greater variety of seaweed available. “Now, because of the popularity of seaweed, there is the movement of ‘seaweed farmers’ much more than ever before. You get more snacks that are seaweed driven, and for snacks to be tasty you need to add MSG. But with seaweed, it has a natural MSG – umami is MSG. My kids have been eating seaweed since they were puppies,” he says with a laugh.

As he travels often to Japan, Ekkebus is finding out about even more types of seaweed and how they are used, and this inspires him to create new ways of integrating them into his menus.

Ekkebus points out that seaweed is a sustainable food that is rich in minerals and healthy to eat. “It’s not something unique to Japan. There are places like Wales where they have laver bread that has a mix of seaweed in it, and which they eat for breakfast. It is used in other dishes, too. We are not ready to eat insects, but we need to look for other sources of food, and the sea has a lot of it.”