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Random Ingredient: Dried Kelp

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What is it? Kelp is a type of brown seaweed used extensively in Asian cooking. This packaged, dried kelp is a Korean product known as dashima, but in Japan is known as kombu and in China hai dai. The actual seaweed, when rehydrated, is intensely slimy, and not surprisingly, smells like the beach. A product of the sea, it contains a large amount of sodium and iodine. Kelp is a great source of vitamin K, folate and magnesium. Kelp is generally cultivated on floating rope rafts in seas and bays throughout China, Japan and Korea.

What is it used for? Truly a multi-purpose sea plant, kelp is not only used in the culinary realm. Alginate is derived from kelp and is used as a thickening aid in ice cream (which also keeps it from forming ice crystals), jelly, salad dressing and toothpaste. Alginates can also be found in everything from ketchup to cosmetics.

As far as food goes, kelp can be rehydrated (or bought fresh) and put into soups, stews or salads. In Japan, it is used to make a flavorful broth called dashi (Korean versions also exist), eaten as a pickled snack with green tea, simmered in soy sauce and rice wine to make tsukudani and eaten with steamed rice, among the seemingly infinite uses.

Kelp is a great source of glutamates; the umami -producing amino acid that enhances flavoring. These same amino acids help soften beans, peas and lentils during the cooking process, making them easier to digest, which is just a polite way of saying that they'll make you fart less. Use a four-inch piece of kelp per pound of dried beans to help ease their "magical fruit" properties.

Where can you buy it in Houston? Any Asian grocery store. 99 Ranch Market and Super H Mart are great places to start.

Recipe: Kelp salad: Courtesy of hunger hunger

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