Feb 252014

Sea Vegetables1We’re so accustomed to thinking of vegetables growing in soil, and how that soil might have been modified, and what kind of pesticides were used, that we need to take a breather, and look a little deeper—as deep as the ocean floor.

Sea vegetables are a group of plants that grow in the ocean. You may hear them referred to as seaweed—yes, that green or brown stuff that looks like slimy spinach–but sea vegetables have been part of the diet of many native cultures in Asia, the Americas, the British Isles, Canada and the Caribbean for thousands of years. These awesome veggies are chockfull of chlorophyll and dietary fiber and they lend a salty flavor to foods, which comes from a balanced combination of sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and many other trace minerals naturally found in the ocean.

What are the Health Benefits in Sea Vegetables?

Seaweed offers a broad range of minerals including all of the 56 essential and trace minerals so important for our health. They also are a good source of folic acid, iodine, magnesium, calcium and some of the B vitamins. Eating too many processed foods or foods grown in mineral-depleted soil can result in a lack of minerals in the body, leading to cravings for salty or sugary foods. Adding sea vegetables to your diet can help balance your energy levels and alleviate cravings.

Other benefits of sea vegetables include improved digestive health, cholesterol-lowering benefits and weight loss.  Sea vegetables contain molecules that slow cancer growth, encourage cancer cell death and protect cells against radiation damage. They also stimulate the immune system, including the powerful natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that is essential in rejecting tumors and virally infected cells.

And if you think you’ve never eaten a sea vegetable before? Think again. Food manufacturers often use processed sea vegetables as thickeners or stabilizers in all types of common products, from instant pudding to toothpaste. (Agar agar is commonly used this way.)  And no, they do not taste fishy!

Most sea vegetables come from Japan where they are continuously fed and cleansed by Arctic Currents, and collected off shorelines that are protected.  The most common way to buy them is dried, which makes them available year-round. Some are available in flake or powder form.

How can I use Sea Vegetables?

sushi roll

The main sea vegetables used in the kitchen are nori (laver), kombu (kelp), wakame (alleria), arame, agar-agar and dulse. Sea veggies can be used in soups and salads, to make sushi, shaken onto grains and beans in granulated form, and turned into delicious side dishes. Add a piece of kombu to beans or grains when cooking to up the mineral content and aid in digestibility.  You can easily and quickly rehydrate them and add to salads, casseroles, quiches or stir-frys.  Dried sea vegetables can be added directly to soups or stews.

Nori– Nori is made by shredding edible seaweed and then pressing it into thin sheets — much like the process for making paper.   You know nori best as the paper-like dark green wrapping that’s used to roll sushi.  You can toast it over a hot flame or purchase it roasted and flavored as a snack.  I was able to get my hands on some wasabi flavored Nori that was incredibly addictive.  Crumble over soups to add extra nutrition.

Kombu (kelp)–The savory flavor of umami is found in kombu.  It is considered one of the secrets of Japan, and is know as the “King of Seaweed.”  Not only is Kombu kelp delicious on its own, but it is different from other seaweed in that it produces Dashi (stock). No other seaweed has that gift. This exclusive characteristic of kombu kelp is extremely important and is indispensible to Japanese cuisine. Dashi is the base of several dishes and valued as a vital and rich ingredient.

Wakame– Wakame is similar to nori but  is intended to be reconstituted in water (soup), where nori is meant to be eaten either dry or quickly wetted.  Wakame is often an ingredient in Miso soup.

Arame—Arame is a good starter because it is very sweet and mild. It will usually come in shredded thin, black strips and is perfect when added to sautéed vegetables, salads, and baked goods. Rich in calcium, iodine, potassium, vitamin A and dietary fiber.

Agar agar– Agar (or Agar Agar), sometimes referred to as kanten, is a gelling agent that comes from a South East Asian seaweed.  It’s an amazing culinary ingredient used as a vegetarian gelatin substitute, a thickener for soups, in fruits preserves, ice cream and others desserts.  It’s also used scientifically as a laxative and an appetite suppressant.

Dulse–Dulse is chewy and savory and umami-rich when it’s raw; when it is toasted, however, it turns crisp, salty, and has been compared to bacon, making it the ideal stand-in as part of the classic BLT when contrasted with tomato, and crisp lettuce.

So, are you ready to dip your toes in the water?  All these ingredients can be found at health food stores, Asian groceries, and online.

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