Growing up in Hawaii gave me great exposure to Asian culture and food. I remember my first "Hawaiian" Thanksgiving. We were invited to a large gathering at a friend's home. We had a turkey, but we also had sushi, sashimi, steamed pork buns, umeboshi (pickled Japanese plums), and plenty of seaweed -- something I had never had before. I soon became a fan of these ocean vegetables and often found myself munching on the many different varieties.
I think we can all agree that seaweed is not a terribly appealing or appetizing word. As such, many enthusiasts refer to them as sea vegetables or ocean vegetables. Whatever you want to call them, these amazing ocean plants are packed with valuable, time-honored nutrition. According to Margaret Wittenberg in her book New Good Food
, "Seaweeds have long been known for their nutritional attributes. Traditional Chinese medicinal texts as far back as 2700 BCE mention seaweed's medicinal qualities," including its ability to nourish the thyroid.
Sea veggies are classified as marine algae. They contain chlorophyll in varying amounts but unlike land plants, they don't have stems, roots or leaves. They rely on the sun's energy and its various wavelengths of light for food. Because of this, they contain different pigments and fall into one of three color categories: red, green or brown. Nutritionally, sea veggies can vary greatly. However, they all deliver a wide assortment of valuable trace minerals including iodine, an essential trace mineral required by the thyroid gland and critical for normal cell metabolism. Brown sea vegetables are especially packed with iodine, and it is because of this that they have a long history of use for keeping the thyroid healthy.
Although the health benefits of sea vegetables date back to ancient times, modern-day scientists are focusing on the phytonutrients, including the lignans. These are plant nutrients that have powerful antioxidant properties. While the green sea vegetables deliver the highest amounts of chlorophyll, red and brown varieties have shown significant antioxidant activity.
As you can imagine, sea veggies are often quite high in sodium. Because of this you will want to rinse them off in water before using. You can also use less salt in cooking when you add them to your recipes. Be sure to purchase sea veggies from companies that are very conscious about where the sea vegetables come from and how they are harvested and stored.
A little bit goes a long way with sea veggies. Because they often expand in volume when cooking, only a small amount of dried is needed. Some varieties will need to be rinsed and soaked before use, such as when adding to cooked foods or when cooking time is shortened. Otherwise, for soups, stews and simmering, rinsing is important, but no soaking is required.
Some common varieties and ways to use them are:
- Agar - Made from many varieties of red algae, it is processed into bars or flakes and is used as a thickener or gelling agent. Here's a vegan version of Chocolate Mocha Pie and a delightful Coconut Cream Tapioca -both thickened with agar.
- Arame - Brown sea veggie great in stir fries, salads and casseroles. Here's a recipe for Arame Mushroom Pasta Salad and this recipe calls for Chicken with Sea Vegetables and Noodles.
- Dulse - Reddish sea veggie that can be eaten raw or cooked. Add to sautés or dry it out in a dry skillet and add to sandwiches or crumble and use over salads, cooked grains, popcorn or pasta. Try it in this Chicken Tostada Salad.
- Kelp - My favorite way to use this: Buy the Kelp sprinkles that our stores carry. Sprinkle over salads, grains and beans. Use it instead of salt for seasoning.
- Kombu - Best added to soups, stews, broths and water for cooking grains as it needs to simmer for a while to become tender. Try Vegetarian Lentil Soup made with kombu.
- Nori - This is what sushi is wrapped in. I love nori lightly toasted (you can buy it this way or run it over a flame from your stovetop for a few seconds - it will turn green) and crumbled over eggs, grains, and salads, or eat as a cracker! Here's a recipe for making your own California Rolls with nori (don't toast it when rolling sushi!)
- Wakame - This is a common sea vegetable used in miso soup in Japan. Can be added to any soups, stews or veggies.
Learn more about the different varieties in our Guide to Sea Veggies
. You can also look for products that have added sea veggies:
- Purchase tempeh with added sea veggies.
- Look for crackers such as brown rice with added sea veggies.
- Check out the Eden brand of canned beans - they have added the kombu for you (kombu is said to help in the digestion of beans so they are less gassy!).
- You can buy sea veggies to sprinkle on salads: Dulse and kelp are usually available in the seasonings aisle.
- Try some Gomasio - this is a blend of sea salt and lightly toasted sesame seeds. Look for the version with added sea veggies - great on salads and cooked grains.
- Munch on roasted nori snacks - pre-packaged in the Asian food section.
Dried sea vegetables will last a very long time, as long as you store them in a tightly sealed container in a dark pantry.
Are you a fan of ocean vegetables? Got a favorite? Let me know!