“Top Chef”: All about the "brilliance" of Amanda's vegan gumbo with kombu

A type of dried kelp, kombu can be a serious flavor weapon

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published May 14, 2024 11:30AM (EDT)

Chopped Kombu Seaweed (Getty Images/Rodrigo Ruiz Ciancia)
Chopped Kombu Seaweed (Getty Images/Rodrigo Ruiz Ciancia)

While this season’s “Restaurant Wars” seemed a bit anemic, there were still some excellent dishes. Dan’s winning smoked walleye, Dan’s carrot-centric take on clam chowder, Savannah’s chawanmushi, Manny’s mole and Soo’s rice cakes all garnered high acclaim, but one that stood out particularly for me was Amanda’s vegan gumbo z'herbes with greens, grilled mushrooms and kombu. 

While judge Tom Colicchio initially said it was good, though it "doesn't eat like gumbo,” he later called the idea of using kombu as the central flavoring ingredient in a vegan gumbo "brilliant." 

As Amanda showed, kombu is an ideal entrant in the vegan kitchen, adding a certain umami and saltiness that can mimic the sea after all, as Kristen Kish put it when she tried the dish, "kombu is part of the sea . . . the home." 

Kombu can offer the flavor of the sea while remaining entirely vegan, imparting a unique, deep salinity and richness.

Also, don't confuse it with nori! While both seaweed, they have some customary differences. Kombu hails from kelp and is thicker and more substantial, while nori is derived from red algae. The world of seaweed is fascinating and myriad, a tapestry of varying textures and flavors, but kombu and nori are usually the most recognized. 

Emily Han writes in The Kitchn that kombu is a staple Japanese ingredient that is "a seaweed that makes for a versatile pantry ingredient, providing dishes with umami flavor, nutrients, and minerals." In most instances, kombu is used to flavor a broth or stock, or in certain cases, cooked with bonito flakes to make dashi, the fundamental, classic Japanese broth that is the base of countless recipes.

As Alexa Weibel writes in The New York Times, dashi is a "cornerstone of Japanese cuisine" and "has smoky, salty, savory notes and tastes restorative on its own, but more often contributes depth to many traditional Japanese recipes, used as one might use any other broth to build flavor." (Weibel also writes that dashi tastes "oceanic but not overtly fishy.”) Dashi is also the base of the Japanese stalwart, any and all miso soups. 

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Han notes that kombu is "mildly salty and subtly sweet [and] contains glutamic acid (the basis of monosodium glutamate, or MSG), which enhances flavor and tenderizes proteins.” In addition to its customarily flavoring soups, batters and stews, along with anything cooked in liquids — braises, beans, grains — it can also be roasted or crisped, ground and used as a condiment. They can also be steamed, simmered or even stuffed, such as in the traditional dish kobumaki. 

In Saveur, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, wrote that kombu "typifies the savory flavor known as umami" and adds a "not so much ocean-y as earthy" flavor to his Spelt Spaghetti with Kombu and Onion Broth. In this recipe at Food & Wine, David Chang "pulverizes the kombu to a powder and blends it with softened butter to baste striped bass fillets." 

In Serious Eats, Becky Selengut gives a primer on seaweed, comparing kombu to wakame, dulse, arame, and of course, nori, noting that seaweed is actually "a colloquial term that refers to red, brown and green algae." Selegut also writes that kombu is "notoriously meaty and valued for its concentration of umami." She also advises "sandwich[ing] raw fish fillets between two pieces of kelp and refigerat[ing] for an hour or two to firm up the flesh and add umami," a unique way to prepare the fish before cooking. 

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Kombu is also an unassuming health boost; as noted by Dr. Josh Axe with Dr. Axe, it "offers tons of minerals, such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, vanadium and zinc." It also offers iodine, vanadium and may even aid in lowering the risks of T2 diabetes by "convert[ing] existing blood sugars into storable starches." It's a pretty top tier ingredient.

Certainly not the most ostentatious or flashy ingredient, kombu is an undeniable flavor weapon to have in your arsenal — and maybe it’s now time for it to get some spotlight. Try using it at home, either in a super simple dashi or maybe in a kombu-imbued rice pilaf, a crispy okonomiyaki, or perhaps even take inspiration from Amanda and make a vegan gumbo. Maybe it’ll even be “brilliant” like hers

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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