Vicki Mayrick dives into the unusual world of sea vegetables and discovers why they’re starting to make an appearance on our menus.
Seaweed has been a culinary resource across the world for thousands of years and often plays an important role in Asian diets, particularly in Japan, Korea and China.
There are thought to be over ten thousand species of seaweed; reflecting its immense diversity both in flavour, and nutritional properties. However, many of us seem apprehensive to include it into our weekly repertoire at home. A shame, seeing as it’s not only sustainable and nutrient-dense, but it tastes amazing too.
Seaweeds, or as they are technically known, sea vegetables, lend themselves to cookery due to their naturally occurring glutamate – an amino acid, which signals savoury flavours to the brain and the main component of the fifth taste, umami. Pronounced “oo-mah-mee” and derived from the Japanese word for delicious ‘umai’ it’s a taste which – if you sample it often enough – you will no doubt like and begin to crave.
Nearly all sea vegetables belong to one of three broad algae groups: green, red and brown. Sea lettuce and onori are the most widely used in the kitchen of the green group. Bright in appearance, sea lettuce is most commonly used in salads and soups – its sheet like texture also makes it a great substitute for pasta in lasagne. Aonori commonly comes in powdered form and is used as a garnish for ramen, sushi and miso soup; it’s delicious when blended with chili powder and sesame seeds to make Japanese shichimi.
Nori is the most common seaweed from the red group and is traditionally used to wrap sushi. Dulse is also popular – a purplish leaf that develops a distinct aroma of bacon when fried (delicious). Brown algae generally tend to be milder and include kelp, kombu (essential in dashi) and wakame, the vibrant green leaves in miso soup and salads.
Sea vegetables are a powerhouse of nutrients – containing dietary fiber, essential amino acids, vitamins, A, B, C, and E, Omega-3 fats. Minerals such as iodine, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium are all present too. These nutrients help to reduce inflammation, boost energy, maintain strong bones and teeth, support thyroid health and hormonal balance – it’s no wonder the Japanese have one of the highest life expectancies in the world!
Introducing sea vegetables is easy. If possible buy fresh seaweed – it’s becoming more and more popular in supermarkets and health-food shops – dried seaweed is also easy to obtain. Rehydration methods and cooking times aren’t standard across brands, so experiment until you find what suits you.
Nori sheets are a great place to start. Substitute them for your usual lunch wraps, or cut them into strips and toss into salads. Dried kelp strips can are great for topping, breads and pizzas, or stirring into pastas. If you make your own vegetable stock add strips of seaweed and strain it out along with the other ingredients. Season soups and stews with small pieces, or seaweed salt you’ll be amazed how it enhances the overall meal.
Powdered seaweed such as spirulina is a great source of natural protein, making it a morning and pre- or post-workout favorite among fitness- enthusiasts. Add a small amount to your favourite smoothie combo (it goes especially well with avocado, banana, or pineapple) and increase the amount as you get used to it.