(Sorry! Something’s wrong with my picture importer. I’m contacting my Web guy. Meanwhile, the blog is still pictureless.)
At the Haleiwa Farmer’s Market last weekend, I met Keiko Beatie, a film producer, programmer and curator in town for a surf film festival that was going on. Beatie asked a question the answer to which has long been a mystery to me, but one I never actually tackled.
“How do you make Ocean Salad,” she asked, speaking of the bright green, sesame-flecked, crunchy dish you often encounter at sushi bars, okazu-ya and Japanese restaurants.
I first asked that question of chef-restaurateur Tom Douglas, in Seattle more than 20 years ago. Douglas, best known as the king of crab cakes and as a “Top Chef” judge, served the salad alongside his justly renowned crab cakes one day. “How do you make THAT?,” I asked after my first taste of the strange, gelatinous-but-toothy, stringy thing. I literally had NO IDEA what it was. “Oh,” he said, “it’s some kind of seaweed thing. I don’t make it, I buy it in the International District” (Seattle’s “Chinatown”).
Well, after receiving Keiko’s request, I spent an interesting morning researching Ocean Salad aka Seaweed Salad aka Goma Wakame (“Sesame Kelp”) aka Kaiso (“Seaweed”) salad, not only online but by calling friends and restaurateurs who know Japanese home cooking.
As I suspected, this dish — in the bright green form with the gelatinous texture — does not appear to be one that many people make at home. Restaurants and okazuya and sushi bars buy the salad mix frozen, thaw it out and dress it. Homemakers buy it from takeout places or buy a dried mix, reconstitute and dress it. Japanese do make many styles of seaweed salad at home from scratch, this usually isn’t one of them, said my friend Chieko, who was born in Japan and cooked in a Japanese restaurant here. “Just buy it, make your own dressing,” said my buddy Toro, a talented home cook.
Ocean salad is generally made with wakame (a wide, green, flat kelp not to be confused with konbu, another form of kelp); for this dish, it’s cut into thin strips. Some versions may contain, instead, hijiki (aka hiziki), a delicate branched seaweed. Wakame is sold either dried or dried and salted or in packets in the the refrigerated/chiller case. If you buy the salted, you have to soak it in hot water and wash it a few times to remove the salt. In Korean stores, ask for dashima or miyurk.
Another key ingredient is threads of green-dyed Jell-O-like kanten (agar agar, a seaweed-based product).
Kikurage mushrooms are common, too. This mushroom, sold dried in Chinese, Japanese and pan-Asian stores, is variously known as black fungus, black Chinese mushroom, hei mo er (“black wood ear”), cloud ear, arage kikurage or jelly mushroom. The latter name is most descriptive because, when reconstituted in hot water, the dried mushroom attains a jellyfish-like texture. Cut into thin strips, kikurage may well be the the pleasantly chewy part of the dish, instead of or in addition to kanten.
Commercial Ocean Salad is often made from a seaweed derivative, denatured alginate, which is gelled, pressed through cutters or dies, then sweetened, dressed and dyed to give it the bright green color, according to one blogger who has worked in the Japanese food industry.
Even if real wakame is used, agar-agar strings or kikurage or both are added to stretch the salad, because they are cheaper than seaweed, another blgger opined. Dyed green, of course.
The other common solid ingredients are red pepper flakes, or threads or rounds of fresh, hot red pepper, and toasted sesame seeds.
In America, the dressing usually contains, in order of volume, sesame oil, sugar, rice vinegar, salt or shoyu and the red peppers. Just a splash of shoyu and often a great deal of sugar. Japanese versions are more likely to contain mirin instead of sugar and dashi (shaved bonito and konbu broth, the chicken broth of Japan) in place of shoyu.
The only thing online that came close to a recipe suggested buying a good quality dried wakame in a natural foods store (this blogger avoids wakame from Asian grocery stores, because these might come from polluted waters or contain mercury; hijiki is much less likely to contain mercury). Reconstitute in hot water. (There is a great deal online about edible seaweed and there are many reputable natural foods online sources.) Slice into thin strings.
If you like, buy kanten and follow package directions to dye green and gell. Or buy kikurage and reconstitute. In either case, use a sharp knife to cut into thin strings.
Dress the reconstituted wakame with sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and sugar with diced garlic (if desired) and chili flakes. The writer specified using the best quality dark amber sesame oil and rice wine vinegar. You can instead use lemon juice but this ingredient must be added only at the last minute; the writer said lemon “makes the seaweed sing.” Refrigerate the salad overnight, dress with freshly toasted sesame, and serve.
The writer gave no measurements but he suggests that sesame oil is the largest volume followed by vinegar with just a splash of shoyu. This writer does not use much sugar but most commercial recipes do. Note that a fresh-made Ocean Salad will not look like the one you’re used to; it won’t be green but black, brown and gray.
None of the people who wrote about making this style of seaweed salad at home gave measurements. There were many recipes for seaweed salad using other ingredients, such as cucumber, carrot, daikon and scallions and different kinds of dressings. (Use a search engine to look up seaweed and salad and wakame and ocean or different combinations of those four.)
“Good seaweed salad needs to have sweet and savory and have a nice smokiness from the sesame oil and seeds. And the seaweed needs to be a bit chewy, but soft and never rubbery,” wrote one blogger. But maybe not bright green.
ANYBODY KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT OCEAN SALAD THAT I DIDN’T TOUCH ON? OR