If the familiar saying “never judge a book by its cover” holds any merit, then a food’s culinary appeal should never be determined only by appearance or first encounters. After all, there was a time when seaweed was regarded merely as a slimy conglomeration of brown stuff that washed up on sandy beaches. Even the sushi trend of the 1970s, with its classic California roll, didn’t change seaweed’s appeal factor for many of us, let alone its suitability in everyday meals. Since then, the tides have turned and so have the ways in which we can enjoy seaweed. When it comes to using seaweed at home, the plant’s versatility is as wide-ranging as the everyday foods we enjoy.
Culinary seaweeds — often referred to as sea vegetables — are types of marine algae located in coastal ocean waters all over the world. Although processed seaweeds have long been a little-known part of the American diet as thickeners and stabilizers in such food favorites as yogurt, instant pudding and salad dressing, now they are beginning to be valued as a highly nutritious and delicious natural food that can be used easily in mainstream cuisine.
Some seaweeds are surprisingly appetizing when lightly roasted and crumbled over salads, soups, or casseroles and grain- or vegetable-based dishes — much like croutons or bacon bits. (To make, simply roast in a 300-degree oven for several minutes, or dry-roast in a nonstick skillet over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes.) Other types expand to the diameter of full-size noodles when rehydrated, making them the perfect pick for stir-fry or pasta-type dishes. Seaweed can even be used to top pizzas and season popcorn.
If you don’t live near coastal waters where ocean harvests are common, you can buy dried seaweed in health-food stores, specialty markets or the Asian foods section of larger supermarkets. Dehydrated seaweeds can be reconstituted by soaking in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes. Depending on the recipe, seaweed can be either dry-roasted without soaking or reconstituted during the cooking process, such as in soups and stews.
Numerous varieties of these vegetables grow in the sea — actually thousands of species. However, there are fewer than 100 of the edible varieties of brown, red or green sea vegetables, with only a portion available in stores and enjoyed as foods. Some of the most popular types include the following.
Arame: This thinly sliced leaf, which looks like a charcoal-colored wiry noodle, is sweeter and milder in flavor than most. As such, this is a great seaweed for first-timers.
Dulse: Striking both in flavor and appearance, this burgundy-hued seaweed is somewhat leathery in texture with a sweet, delicate flavor and just a hint of salty bacon-seafood taste. It goes well with a wide variety of foods, making it also a great choice for seaweed novices.
Hijiki: Also known as hiziki, this black noodle-like seaweed has a flavor akin to fish sauce, which is probably why it has become my favorite for stir-fry, pasta and tofu dishes. The wiry noodles quadruple in size when rehydrated.
Kombu: A salty, tender Japanese seaweed, kombu is also called konbu, sea cabbage or kelp. Due to its natural glutamic acids, kombu is the perfect partner for beans: The acid tenderizes the beans so they cook faster and become easier to digest. This one is best for roasting.
Nori: The classic tissue-thin sushi roll seaweed also can be used with a variety of foods — from potatoes, tofu and eggs to cream cheese, grains and pasta. Its salty-sweet ocean flavor takes on nutty overtones when toasted.
Wakame: Along with its American cousin alaria, wakame is generally sweet and mild-tasting and often is combined with rice and beans, used shredded in salads, miso and other soups or stir-fries, or dry-roasted for a tasty topping.
Seaweeds contain a powerhouse of dietary fiber and are one of the richest vegetable sources of minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium and iodine. Many seaweeds, such as nori, arame and hijiki, have less sodium per serving than salt. Nori and wakame contain high amounts of the B-complex vitamins. These harvests of the sea are also low in calories and are nearly fat-free.
From a health standpoint, sea vegetables are well noted for their cancer-protective properties, especially against breast cancer. Seaweeds also promote healthy thyroid function and exhibit anti-inflammatory actions and extraordinary antifungal activity. In fact, many species contain natural antibiotics that help defend against infection, making seaweeds potentially valuable during the cold and flu season. According to research reported by BBC News, Japanese scientists say that one seaweed in particular, Sargassum piluliferum, which is found in shallow coastal waters around Japan, may be more effective at fighting flu than conventional drugs.