What is Kombu Kelp?
Who better to explain Kombu seaweed than one of our expert harvesters? Seaweed Manager Rory MacPhee, the original 'Mara Man,' shares some insights on this slippery brown kelp.
A seaweed by many other names
The Latin name for Kombu is Laminaria Digitata, because the fronds resemble the digits of a hand. Colloquially, it’s also known as Sea Tangle, Oarweed and Sea Girdle. Mara markets the product as Kombu for global recognition.
Children in the Hebrides used to cut the stipe or stalk into small sticks, then chew. The sweetness is alluring, and the iodine works as a preventative for tooth decay. The fifth taste, umami, was discovered by the Japanese through the study of kombu.
The life cycle of kombu
This protective plant grows on the extremity of the lower tidal zone, and lives for three or four years. Propagation is by shedding of spores in the autumn.
By mid-January the fronds or leaves of kombu will be returning to rude health after the autumn blooming, looking like leather belts made for mermaids.
By February, the fronds are of a size and quality for picking, the season running through to the end of June. At this point, the 1.3cm average daily growth rate has produced a plant the size of a grown man!
Harvesting quality kelp
The harvester looks forward to the New Year with eager relish. It’s cold, but there’s warmth in their full safety kit, silently tracking the early fronds, wielding a knife and carrying a tonne off the beach every tide. The smell of iodine assaults the senses, and the harvester revels in the healthiest working environment on Earth.
Fast flowing sea-currents and above average salinity are needed to produce a product free of imperfections and high in glutamic acid, a source of flavour. Mara’s harvest team clock up about 1000 hours a season working with kombu – priceless knowledge and understanding of the best spots.
Back on shore, Mara’s unique processing capacity ensures that the dried fronds retain the high nutrients and taste notes.
Gluatmic acid gives Kombu an outrageous ability to enhance taste and flavour. Whilst some other foods have higher glutamic acid levels, we find Kombu delivers the most flexibility in the kitchen.
Heat a spoonful of Kombu kelp flakes in water to just below boiling point, then use the clear liquid as stock. The Japanese call this ichiban dashi. We love to use Kombu kelp to flavour the base of root veg soups, fragrant curries or hearty stews. It's also fantastic in bread, as a seasoning for fish or in mushroom risotto. How will you enjoy it?
Mara's Kombu kelp flakes are a perfect store cupboard addition.