(recipe at bottom of post)
I like my food to have zing; I like flavours that are clear but pack punch. When I tasted the first bite of Korean marinated seaweed, with its layers of bright flavours and textures, in soothing shades of green, I wanted the recipe immediately.
I was visiting a friend who was renting her spare bedroom to a student. The student lived there for four months, during which my friend and I had the opportunity to sample several Korean dishes, each one better than the last. I thought she was a wonderful cook, until the day I tasted the seaweed dish and requested the recipe. It turned out that her mother had prepared all the delicacies we had been feasting upon.
Every weekend, her mother sent dozens of containers full of all her favourite dishes, along with instructions for how to heat them up, and what to combine with what. (Korean cuisine is practically synonymous with fresh and quickly cooked, so I wasn’t expecting this.) The student told me she hadn’t a clue as to how to prepare the seaweed, but she would ask her mother for me. She moved away a few weeks later and disappeared from my life before I could get the recipe. In the years since, I have enquired at Korean food shops and pestered Korean friends and acquaintances, trying to find out about this dish. None of them have had any more of a clue than that student did.
Recently, I was reading some posts about Korean dishes on the blog of Twitter-friend and fellow writer J.A. Pak, who also shares my love of cooking and eating good food. “Ah,” I thought, “she’s a foodie and she obviously enjoys Korean food; maybe she knows something about marinated seaweed.” Finally, I asked her about it. She thought the dish I had tried must be a basic seaweed salad that many Koreans commonly prepare. She sent me a recipe right away.
I zipped out to get some seaweed and made it the next day. The seaweed dish I remembered could be eaten as a finger food, since the seaweed strips were still firm. They were very moist but not wet, and seemed to be strips of thickish nori (the seaweed used for sushi), but quite damp and chewy. J.A.’s recipe is made with wakame. It really is a salad, with a thin dressing that soaks into the seaweed. Though it still isn’t the recipe I’ve been looking for, I’ve made it twice already, and I’ll be making it often.
The flavour balance is lovely; the zing of the chili powder, the slight bite and clean finish from the rice vinegar, the earthiness of the garlic and the toasty sesame all set off the complexity of the seaweed nicely, and cucumber adds a cool and crunchy touch. Since seaweed is naturally salty, I balked at the 2 teaspoons of salt in the recipe, and instead used only one. I figured I could always add more, but I liked the result as it was. Don’t omit it altogether though. The saltiness of the seaweed is greatly reduced once it has been soaked.
You can buy dried wakame seaweed from a Korean or Japanese store, or from a health-food shop. J.A. suggested Eden brand wakame, because it’s usually very fresh and it’s clean of sandy grit. The local health food store normally carries it, but on the day I went, they only had Koyo brand. I found it to be just as good. If you buy the seaweed at an Asian store, especially if it’s sold in bulk, you may have to rinse it well after soaking it, to get rid of sand and bits of other sea detritus. The package said to soak in tepid water for 15 minutes, but mine was ready in ten. Be careful not to hydrate it too long, or it will be mushy. You want it to be slightly al dente. Regardless of brand, if the store has a high turnover, it should be fresh. The older it is, the longer you will have to soak it.
If you can’t get Korean pepper (gochugaru) you can make the salad with regular chili powder, but the result will not be the same, as Korean chili has a unique flavour.
The recipe is quick and easy to make. I took an extra five minutes or so to toast my sesame seeds in a dry pan, but if you buy Korean or Japanese pre-blended sesame salt, you won’t have to do this, in which case, you will have this dish on the table in less than twenty minutes, including rehydrating the seaweed. If you do toast your own sesame seeds, I think it’s preferable to crush them with a pestle, as this will release more flavour, but I’ve also been lazy and just thrown them, whole and hot from the pan, right into the dressing mixture. There is a pleasing sizzle as they go in, and perhaps this helps release extra flavour too.
I halved all the ingredients, and the result was enough for two small servings.
For the salad
½ cup wakame seaweed
¼ to ½ an Asian cucumber (long, thin variety)
Wakame usually comes in long ribbons, but you can also buy a pre-cut version. If you use this, take about half a cup of pieces and rehydrate according to the instructions on the package. Otherwise, just cut the dried wakame with scissors before rehydrating. Slice the cucumber very finely, or shred, using a large-holed grater.
For the seasoning, J.A. sent me a recipe from her favourite Korean cookery book, Practical Korean Cooking by Noh Chin Hwa.
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame salt (or just sesame seeds)
Combine all the ingredients and toss together with the wakame and cucumber. As J.A. told me, “you may end up with more sauce than you need, but this sauce is a basic for putting on anything, including tofu.”
Roasted kim seaweed
It seems likely that the other seaweed dish I was looking for is probably roasted kim, which is the Korean version of nori. Koreans like to eat it with rice, wrapping it around a spoonful at a time. My friend simply offered us oblongs of it on a plate. It made a wonderful snack. If you want to try it, you need to get sheets of kim at a Korean grocery, brush each with sesame oil and give them a few shakes of salt, then grill them, or cook on a griddle over medium heat. Be super careful, as this seaweed will overcook and burn before you know it. You will see the colour change from black to green, and if it turns very pale, it’s overcooked and about to burn. It is best when it has just turned crisp. Cut the toasted sheets into oblongs to eat.
J.A. blogs about food at I’m Not Julia Child. She’s got a great-sounding recipe for Citrus Kimchee that I’m dying to try. She also writes wonderfully uncanny stories, which you can read at JA Pak , her eponymous writing blog.