Kombu (Kelp) is the Heart of ‘Umami’

A piece of dried kelp to be used in making stock, or dashi, at Sen in Sag Harbor. Gavin Menu photo

Sugar kelp, or kombu, might just be the most important ingredient in Japanese cuisine. It’s naturally-made glutamate provides the key flavor in dashi, the primary cooking stock used in miso soup, noodle broths and dipping sauces. The kelp, which grows deep underwater, is too tough to eat in its natural form, but the flavor it provides to stock in critical, according to Jesse Matsuoka, an owner of Sen Restaurant in Sag Harbor.

“Take MSG — monosodium glutamate — it dilates your taste buds, but it’s not like it makes things taste good, you just taste more,” Matsuoka said, holding a large sheet of kombuwhile making a batch of stock recently with his executive chef, Courtney Sypher. “With natural stuff, it’s actually tasty. This is an amazing product.”

The sheets of kombuused to make dashi are covered in a white powdery substance packed with flavor, or umami, a flavor often described as savory, but which really is all encompassing.

“One chef put it as ‘It is the sensation of mmmmmmm…,” Matsuoka explained. “That is umami.  It’s a euphoric sensation of spicy, salty, sweet, anything.”

At Sen, Syphor adds three sheets of high-quality, imported kombu into a stock pot filled with water. Once it reaches a simmer, she turns off the burner and adds bonito flakes, or katsuobushi, which aredried and fermented fish flakes.

“You don’t want it to boil either,” Matsuoka said. “Just bring the water and kombuto a simmer and then turn it off and let the bonito flakes steep like tea.”

To make miso soup, the chefs at Sen add sweet white and savory yellow miso to the dashi, and finish the soup with tofu, scallions and a lighter form of seaweed. The dashi is also used prominently in the restaurant’s noodle dishes and sauces.

“The base for all those is dashi,” Matsuoka said. “It’s all the same ingredients, just different ratios.”

Matsuoka and Syphor, along with other members of the Sen team, were leaving for Japan earlier this month to attend a food show and meet with representatives of the company that provides their restaurant with its kombu. On their return trip from Japan, the group will stop in Dallas, Texas for Ramen Expo USA, where they hope to gather even more ideas on how to incorporate kombu and dashi into their cuisine back home.

“We’re going to be talking about soup stocks and all sorts of things,” Matsuoka said. “Noodles and stocks. We’re going to be getting all sorts of great ideas and bringing them back to Sag Harbor.”