For many, seaweed is a daily component of their diet; the Japanese have long known the health benefits of marine algae and for several centuries have made use of it in all manner of soups, salad, breads, side dishes, and as a sushi wrapper. But for some, it remains an acquired taste that causes nose crinkling at the mere thought of munching on its washed ashore-ness. It is gaining popularity slowly and surely across the rest of the world as organic eating and food provenance have risen to the top of people's diet concerns. Cookbooks are emerging with a focus on recipes built with sea vegetables due to their purported health benefits and suitability for macrobiotic, vegan and vegetarian diets and many of the coastal regions of North America have now started cultivating seaweeds for human consumption, but it feels very much like the West has come late to the party thrown by this nutrient-rich, aquatic host. So, what all has this mysterious sea-veggie got to offer?
Seaweed is a simple plant with no flowers or roots as it feeds through the spores on the leaves. It grows in shallow oceans atop rocks in order to absorb the required sunlight and its rubbery exterior is thick, protecting the algae from absorbing too much salt. Seaweed sits at the bottom of the saltwater food chain, making it essential to ocean life where there are more than 400 different types of the algae.
Seaweeds contain antioxidants that help he body fight cell damage and this miraculous kelp has also been used as a skin treatment for eczema, acne, and psoriasis as well as having a moisturising effect on the skin and hair improving suppleness and elasticity. When it comes to dieting, seaweed is considered a "free food" because it provides between five to 20 calories per serving and contains virtually no fat. Its fibre content also contributes to a feeling of fullness and most seaweed are high in amino acids, rich in potassium, iron, calcium, iodine and magnesium as these minerals are concentrated in sea water.
So, which ones should we eat to get a dose of this briny bounty? The three most popular types of edible seaweed are readily available around the globe: Kombu is a large kelp used often in Japan as a mineral rich flavour enhancer for soups and hot pots. Nori, the thin dried seaweed sheets used to wrap sushi, is among the most nutritious of all sea vegetables with significant amounts of Vitamins A, C, niacin and folic acid. During processing most salt is washed away, so the sodium content is also low. And Wakame, mostly found in dried form, has a sweeter taste that is often used in miso soup and is so chock-full of nutrients it is very popular with those who follow a macrobiotic lifestyle. Other common varieties include Irish Moss, a variety of red algae commonly used in the home brewing of an ice cold beer, Arame a sweet seaweed full of iron, calcium and iodine, Dulse, a red seaweed available in flakes that is naturally very salty and iron rich and can be eaten raw so it makes a good seasoning on salads, vegetables, and soups. Agar Agar, so good they named it twice, has a gelatinous consistency that makes it an ideal thickener for vegetarian dishes. Be mindful of which seaweed you choose, as it was recently discovered that hijiki, a mild-flavoured brown sea veg most often used in Japanese home cooking for stews and stir fries, contains higher than usual traces of arsenic, which may have long-term effects if eaten regularly. This is not the case with any of the most commonly consumed seaweeds like the nori used in sushi. So don't go giving up your sea vegetables, just be careful which underwater forest you pillage from.
Seaweed can grow up to 12 inches per day.