Sea Vegetables: Don't Call 'Em Weeds

by Amy Topel

Plants are considered weeds when they are growing in an area where they are not desirable. There is a group of plants that we commonly call seaweeds but this term doesn't make sense and it denies the value of these plants in our diets. Like land vegetables, sea vegetables are nutritious additions to our diet. They provide many minerals (most notably iron), a good supply of protein and fiber as well as Vitamins A, B6 and C.

Botanically, sea vegetables are algae. Algae get divided into two categories, the macroalgae (meaning large algae) and microalgae (small algae). Spirulina, which is sold in powdered form as a nutritional supplement, is a common microalga.

We may not be aware of it but most of us eat seaweed on a daily basis. Agars, alginates, carrageenans are sea vegetable extracts that are used as thickeners and stabilizers in a dizzying number of processed foods. They are used in cakes and icings, candies, sauces and gravies, salad dressings, cheeses, chocolate milk, puddings, low-sugar jams and jellies, whipped toppings and yogurt to name a few. They are also used in products like shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, adhesives and polishes.

There are many cultures that use sea vegetables as a food source, and not just as a hidden ingredient. Sea vegetables are most often associated with Japanese cuisine, but are also common ingredients in both Korean and Chinese cookery. Sea vegetables are not confined to these cuisines however. They are harvested off the coasts of almost every continent, and are traditional foods in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Western Europe, Iceland, Alaska and Chile among others.

The nomenclature of sea vegetables can be quite confusing. Some species of sea vegetables grow in 3 or 4 different regions of the world. In each habitat they take on slightly different characteristics. For the seaweeds listed below, I have combined species that are similar enough that they are used in the same ways.

Kombu (Japan) Kelp (US)

Kombu is high in protein and the vitamins A and C. It was traditionally used as a flavor enhancer in Japan. The vegetable is used to make a broth called dashi, which is added to many Japanese preparations. Dashi is made by boiling Kombu in water until the water has taken on its flavor. Kombu's ability to enhance flavor lead to the creation of MSG. This artificial flavor enhancer was made from salt and glutamate (an ingredient in Kombu). Kelp is more tender and thinner than Kombu, and can be used to make stocks or soaked and then added to stir-fries.

Wakame (Japan) Alaria (US) Badderlocks (Scotland) Tangle (Ireland)

These sea vegetables are high in protein and the vitamins B6 and K. They have thin tender leaves, which are nice in both soups and salads. Wakame can be soaked and eaten raw or slightly blanched before being added to a dish. Alaria needs to be cooked; blanch it for 5-10 minutes before adding it to a dish.

Hijiki (Japan)

This sea vegetable is also high in protein. It needs to be soaked for 30 minutes before cooking. It can be cooked in plain water or in a broth made of water and apple juice. Often served as a cold salad or side dish. Cooked hijiki is sauted with tofu, onions and carrots and seasoned with soy sauce and sesame seeds.

Nori (Japan) Porphyra (US) Laver (Britain and Iceland)

Nori does not need to be cooked. In Japan it is wrapped around rice rolls or sushi, it is also shredded and used as garnish on many dishes. In Britain, laver is rinsed and simmered in water, and cooked to a jelly and served on toast or added to oats, formed into cakes and fried in bacon fat. Laver can be dry roasted and then crumbled onto stews, grains and soups.

Dulse (Canada & Scotland) Dillisk (Ireland)

Dulse can be eaten raw, right out of the bag as a chewy snack. It also tastes great when toasted in the oven to make it crunchy. It has long been a traditional addition to mashed potatoes in Ireland in a dish called champ. Make mashed potatoes as you normally would, heating the chopped dulse in the milk before adding it into the potatoes.

Sea Lettuce (US)

Served as salad in both east Asia and Chile. Best eaten raw.

If you are unfamiliar with using sea vegetables you may want to purchase them at a health food store as opposed to an Asian grocery store. The packages at health food stores generally have directions on using the sea vegetables.

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