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If you didn’t grow up eating them, sea vegetables can be challenging. But hijiki, a black or dark brown seaweed, has an umami-rich, mushroom-like quality that its greener counterparts do not.
With its sweet, clean, mineral smell, hijiki (which is full of iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium) evokes the forest instead of the tide. And, like mushrooms, hijiki is perfectly designed to absorb and concentrate savory, sweet flavors, which explains why, in Japan, it's most commonly eaten as hijiki no nimono (literally translated to "braised hijiki," it's simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and sake).
Hijiki isn’t from the forest, of course, but from Japan’s rocky coasts, where it’s hand-harvested in the spring, then dried before being packaged. Most hijiki has been dried twice: once in the sun before rinsing and rehydrating, then again after it's steamed to remove bitterness.
There are two types of hijiki, which are actually just different parts of the same species: “stems” (nagahijiki) and “leaves” (mehijiki). Some people find the smaller, flat, bud-like mehijiki, with its almost velvet texture and mild flavor, easier to cook with than its tougher counterpart—and, conveniently, mehijiki is also the type more readily available in Asian supermarkets here in the U.S.
Before being rehydrated, hijiki resembles dried black tea. It must be soaked for 30 minutes in plenty of water (it will double or triple in volume) prior to being cooked. But after that, preparing hijiki no nimono takes all of 15 minutes, making it just the thing for these get-me-out-of-winter months when we crave comfort and nutrients but are short on patience.
The savory-sweet nimono begins with a quick sauté of vegetables—usually matchsticks of carrots and slivered shiitake mushrooms. Fried tofu skins or whole soybeans and thin slices of lotus root and konnyaku (a.k.a. konjac) are sometimes added, followed by the rehydrated and drained hijiki and a sweet sake and soy seasoning. Everything simmers for about 10 minutes and then is allowed to cool to room temperature or slightly cooler, so that the flavors have a chance to settle in. Hjiki is usually eaten a bite here, a bite there as part of a larger meal.
The basic recipe is easily adapted and embellished if you remember that hijiki is more mushroom, less ocean: It wants to be with other earthy things. Subtly sweet, starchy flavors of carrots, burdock, lotus root, parsnips, radishes, turnips, and rice all complement hijiki’s mineral taste. Soybeans, firm tofu, or small pieces of sake-simmered chicken add some substance.
This recipe for basic hijiki no nimono makes a fair amount, enough for at least four people as a side, but even if you don’t need to feed a crowd, consider making the whole batch. One night, try a simple hijiki no nimono alongside cold soba noodles. The next, add it like confetti to a rice bowl, along with avocado, sweet potato, and sautéed greens, or use hijiki rice to make onigiri.
And when you’re feeling lazy and in need of coddling, there’s something just perfect about a bowl of rice, punctuated with hijiki, and topped with an egg.
- 1/2 cup dried hijiki
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 carrots, peeled
- 4 to 5 medium/large fresh shiitake mushrooms, rubbed clean and destemmed
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
- sea salt to taste
Do you have experiences cooking with seaweed? Share your tips and recipes in the comments below!