Carrot, onion and hijiki brown rice noodle bowl with crispy tofu

Back when I was in culinary school sea vegetables hadn’t yet gone mainstream (this was before Annie Chun’s seaweed snacks became all the rage). Sure, I had eaten seaweed in various forms at Japanese restaurants in the US: nori-wrapped sushi rolls; a few bits of wakame (which at the time I didn’t know was called wakame) floating in miso soup; those squeaky, translucent mystery strands that make up the typical seaweed salad (which are actually some sort of extruded product only vaguely related to seaweed). But I didn’t cook with sea vegetables or keep them in the pantry. But if there was one thing I took away from my time at Natural Gourmet (don’t worry, there were many more) it was an appreciation of greens from the sea. Suddenly I began looking beyond the soy sauce and Thai curry paste in the Asian section of the grocery store and filling my basket with nutrient-rich kombu to add to pots of beans and broths, dulse for snacking and adding to salads and grain dishes, hijiki, arame, and the list goes on.

Carrot-onion-hijiki, which we made in one of our macrobiotic cooking classes, was the dish that really made a seaweed lover out of me. In this macro classic, brown-black threads of hijiki, one of the more intensely marine-tasting of the ocean greens, are soaked and then braised with sweet browned onions, earthy carrots, fresh ginger and tamari (traditionally fermented soy sauce). The resulting dish is balanced and deeply flavorful — sweet, salty, savory, slightly smoky, with a hint of ocean-y tang. It’s a delicious example of culinary synergy, where just a few simple ingredients magically combine to create something much more than the sum of their parts.
Hijiki braised in this style is typically a side dish or condiment, served alongside brown rice, tofu or tempeh, steamed vegetables, pickled vegetables and herbs, and/or a stew. I wanted to bring this flavor combination into a main course and decided on a noodle bowl, pairing the silky and gingery hijiki mixture with springy brown rice noodles, golden-crusted pan-fried tofu, crisp scallions, a drizzle of hot sesame oil and a sprinkling of furikake (a delicious mixture of toasted sesame seeds, dried shiso leaf and nori). The result was a supremely satisfying and comforting dish that tangles up a spectrum of flavors and textures in one bowl.

Hijiki attracted some negative press in the natural foods community a few years ago when it was found to have a higher arsenic content than its sea vegetables relatives (it absorbs more of this heavy metal from ocean water). This led to speculation that consuming hijiki could increase the risk of cancer. Interestingly, although hijiki does contain a small amount of arsenic, like other leafy sea greens it also contains alginic acid, aka alginate, a polysaccharide that binds heavy metals in the gastrointestinal tract and aids in their elimination from the body. Unfortunately it’s not well understood whether the alginic acid in hijiki mitigates arsenic absorption in humans, as most of the research has been done on chemically extracted samples and in rodents.

My personal view is that context is very important here. In Japan, where hijiki has been part of the traditional diet for hundreds (or more likely thousands) of years, it has always been consumed as an occasional rather than an everyday food. Typical consumption is 2 to 3 teaspoons per person, once every 7 to 10 days. I continue to eat hijiki occasionally (not more than once a month) and in small amounts, and with this use I am not concerned with its relatively low arsenic content (seafood and conventionally grown rice are other potential dietary sources of arsenic). To reduce the amount of arsenic and other heavy metals I always soak hijiki for at least 10 minutes before using it and discard the soaking water. That said, if you prefer not to consume hijiki, arame makes a great stand-in for this recipe. {For more information on the hijiki / arsenic issue this is an interesting read. It’s written by the folks at Eden organics, which sells hijiki, but seems to be a scientifically balanced discussion nonetheless.}

Carrot, onion and hijiki brown rice noodle bowl with crispy tofu
Serves 2

6 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon dried hijiki (or arame)
4 ounces quick-cooking brown rice noodles (I used Star Anise Foods Vietnamese noodles)
sesame oil (not toasted)
1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)
2 small carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal (about 1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon tamari
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
salt
freshly ground black pepper

garnishes:
thinly sliced scallions
hot sesame oil

toasted sesame seeds or furikake

Drain tofu on a paper towel-lined plate for about 30 minutes.

Soak hijiki in 1 cup warm water for 10 minutes. Drain and discard soaking water.

Place noodles in a heat-safe Pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Pour 3 cups of boiling water over noodles, cover and soak for 3 to 4 minutes (or cook according to package instructions). Drain and rinse with cold water. Return to bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon sesame oil to prevent noodles from clumping. Set aside.

Season tofu with salt and pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons sesame oil in a skillet and fry tofu until golden and crisp on all sides, about 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate.

Wipe out skillet and add 1 tablespoon sesame oil and onions. Cook over medium heat until onions have softened and taken on some color, 6 to 8 minutes. Layer carrots and then hijiki over onions. Add tamari, grated ginger and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat tolow and cover pan. Cook until carrots are tender and liquid has reduced, about 10 minutes.

Add hijiki mixture to cooked noodles and toss to combine. Transfer to serving bowl(s), top with crispy tofu and garnish with scallions, hot sesame oil and sesame seeds or furikake.

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