I first tasted fresh seaweed about three decades ago but remember it like yesterday. I didn’t appreciate the flavour or nutritional properties of pickled kelp that the Tofino beach community raved about. The only way I vowed to try it again would be skewered and disguised as an olive in a Martini and only after my second Martini. But that was before I had an encounter with “Legumes de Mer” at the Sooke Harbour House.
A seaweed salad made with three varieties of seaweed was served from an edible seaweed bowl: (brush sea lettuce with a few drops of maple syrup, fold into small Pyrex bowls and cook at low heat for about 10 minutes.) And the bread–that didn’t need ordering– was spiked with kelp. More recently I drank a seaweed shake in Belize, chewed dried dulse in Dublin, slathered butter on laverbread in Wales and ate seaweed salad in Maui. At home I sprinkle kelp powder over my dog’s kibble and toss a few teaspoons into my smoothie.
Koreans know well the health benefits: mothers eat wakame after childbirth, and it is served in hospitals. They chuck it into hotpots. The Japanese consume about 100,000 tons of the stuff per year and the Irish have used it since 400 A.D. But most North Americans have eaten seaweed only in sushi, or think they have: seaweed is used as a thickener (the gelling extract is called agar) in ice cream and it’s a vegetarian alternative to gelatin, which comes from animal’s bones.
Jamie Oliver last year touted seaweed ‘the most nutritious vegetable in the world’ and attributed it to his weight loss. Alginate, a natural fibre found in kelp and other seaweeds, inhibits the enzymes that allow the body to digest fat. And researchers in the U.K. are investigating fucoxanthin, a pigment in brown seaweed, for its fat-burning abilities. Seaweeds contain vitamins C, A, B2, calcium, magnesium and iron. Fish get their Omega 3 from seaweed, so by eating more of the plants that fish eat rather than eating the fish, we can reduce the pressure on fish stocks. Seaweed really is a superfood!
Dried seaweed is widely available in supermarkets. Check out seaweed snacks–one label touts it as “strangely addictive”. Powdered kelp is sold in pet food stores. As for uses, the Irish add dulse to potatoes; Hawaiians mix seaweed with spam, Craft brewers flavour beer with kelp and I crumble wakame into scrambled eggs. It’s simple and versatile: just cover with warm water to hydrate and add to almost anything, from soups to salads to smoothies.
You can find fresh seaweed in the seafood section at T&T supermarkets, but heavily salted as a preservative ( imported from China) so rinse well and blanch for a few minutes. Taste. Fresh seaweed salad has been sold by gourmet Japanese retailers for years, and it’s available in Costco. And some chefs who caught the wave are serving sea veggies beyond traditional Japanese recipes.
“Seaweed flavours are bold yet delicate, and kelp loves citrus, vanilla and spice,” said executive Chef Ned Bell of the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver. His brigade incorporates kelp into many items, from bread and scones to a vinaigrette for scallops to green tea and kelp meringue. “I just made a really neat aioli for spot prawn season,” said Bell.
It may take some time to get excited about seaweed, but please give it a chance–for you and the planet.
If you want to learn how to hand-harvest seaweed, take a tour with Diane Bernard, the Seaweed Lady and Sea Flora founder, at sea-flora.com
If fresh seaweed is unavailable, you can reconstitute dried dulse and wakame. Or try a combination. This vibrant salad with familiar apple and carrot and bold Asian herbs is a great introduction to seaweed.
2 Tbsp (30 mL) rice vinegar
1 Tbsp (15 mL) toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce
1 Tbsp (15 mL) mirin
1 tsp (5 mL) minced fresh ginger
1 Thai chili, seeded and minced (optional)
2 cups (500 mL) dried, mixed wakame seaweed (whole or cut)
1 lb (454 g) fresh seaweed
1 Tbsp (15 mL) toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbsp (15 mL) toasted black sesame seeds
1 julienned, tart apple, such as Granny Smith
1 cup (250 mL) julienned carrot
1 cup (250 mL) julienned daikon (white radish)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Handful each mint leaves, cilantro leaves, basil leaves, chopped
To make the dressing, combine the rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, salt, and ginger in a small bowl and whisk together. Add sesame seeds.
Put the dry seaweed in a medium bowl and cover with warm water for about 2 minutes. Rinse and drain the seaweed and use your hands to squeeze out excess water.
Rinse thoroughly in cold water. Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch for about 1 minute. Quickly cool in cold running water and drain well. Taste: if the seaweed is too briny for your liking, blanch again.
In a large bowl, combine the seaweed with the dressing and sesame seeds. Toss thoroughly to combine. Add apple, carrot, and daikon. Plate the salad and garnish with scallions and fresh herbs.