I recently had a pickled variety of seaweed as a garnish to my monkfish entree at Thames Street Kitchen in Newport, Rhode Island. I was surprised by the mild taste, and I loved the crunch with just a touch of tanginess that it added to the fish. And it certainly didn’t smell like the washed-up variety of seaweed typically found on the beach. I had no idea I was eating seaweed until I inquired about the plant placed so precisely on my plate.

According to the head chefs at Thames Street Kitchen, seaweed contains a ton of umami, which is something a lot of chefs and consumers look for these days. Chefs Tyler Burnley and Chad Hoffer say that with its health benefits, seaweed could become the next superfood, much like kale.

Umami is, in simplest terms, our fifth taste — alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It was identified by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who coined the term more than 100 years ago from the Japanese word "yummy" or "delicious." Ikeda found that the foods with umami have higher levels of glutamate, an amino acid and a building block of protein.

"Glutamate is found in most living things, but when they die, when organic matter breaks down, the glutamate molecule breaks apart. This can happen on a stove when you cook meat, over time when you age a Parmesan cheese, by fermentation as in soy sauce, or under the sun as a tomato ripens," according to NPR.com.

The savory tastes of foods, their explosive flavors and the sensation they provide is umami.

In the past few years, companies like Campbell's, McDonald's and Frito-Lay have been developing new flavors and ingredients in search of umami. It's a relatively new term here in the United States, but this obscure, hard-to-describe culinary concept is becoming increasingly more mainstream.

As mentioned in a previous article about umami, Japanese and Korean broths made using dried fish and seaweed are considered to be the most straightforward umami flavor. Chef James Mark, a StarChefs.com Rising Star Winner for 2014, says he uses seaweed in his dishes at North, his restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, to create umami.

"Seaweed is a source of a series of minerals that help contribute to a stock's backbone and umami," Mark says. "With particular groups, seaweed has always been an important aspect of cooking and eating. In our kitchen, it is one of the basic building blocks of sauces."

Traditionally, seaweed has been used in Japanese dashi, a stock made from the kombu variety of kelp and dried bonito flakes. At North, Mark always incorporates kombu into his stocks.

Umami aside, seaweed is rich in vitamins, calcium, antioxidants, and has been known to increase metabolism and energy levels. According to the Huffington Post, serving sizes of seaweed are often not large enough to provide a big boost in nutrients, but they can be an extraordinary source of iodine.

Seaweed is a member of the algae family with more than 145 different species of brown, red, and green varieties. In Japanese meals, about 20 species are used.

 "We use a variety of different seaweed preparations depending on the dish," Mark said. "I think Western cooks have become more comfortable with Asian ingredients and using seaweed has been more apparent across kitchens in the U.S. In addition to using kombu for stock, we will also grind wakame into our sausages or pickle it for an acidic component and, occasionally, we will use nori for garnishes. To us, and to our patrons, seaweed is just another vegetable."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the cultivation of commercial seaweed. While we can head down to our beaches and pluck seaweed from the water to eat, it isn't recommended. It's important to know the quality of the water where seaweed came from because seaweeds absorb the water around them much like shellfish.

For the home cook, several varieties of seaweed can be found in health food stores, Asian markets, and grocery stores such as Whole Foods. With the right ingredients, such as those in a soup or stir fry, it can be a flavorful component to a dish while giving a boost of antioxidants and iodine. Mark suggests adding a piece of kombu to braises and stocks.

"It can help bring out the complexity and flavor depth of a dish," he says.

So here's to tantalizing those taste buds; here's to umami.

Related on MNN:

Exploring umami through seaweed
Though long a staple of Asian diets, seaweed's special flavor is only recently finding its way onto more U.S. plates, bringing along a host of health benefits.