Let’s Eat Seaweed!
The benefits of seaweed are so astounding that Tallulah and I recently attended a seaweed retreat in France along the beaches of Brittany, an area known for its varieties of these intriguing sea vegetables. In all, there are close to 800 different seaweed varieties that are native to these waters—the richest diversity of such species in the world. Some of the major varieties harvested from Brittany’s beaches include wakamé, spirulina, kombu royal, sea spaghetti, lithothamne, and the widely used nori and dulse.
The term “seaweed” is actually a bit misleading: with a few notable exceptions, seaweeds are saltwater-tolerant, land-dependent plants growing almost exclusively at the narrow interface where land and sea meet. Most must be firmly attached to rocks or each other to stay in the zone where they can receive sufficient sunlight to grow. The Brittany area is so rich in seaweed because of the rise and fall of up to 10 metres of sea level between high and low tides, so the sea vegetables get enough light for photosynthesis.
Seaweed has been on this planet for at least 300 million years. In fact, the world’s trees are descendants of green seaweed; they are closer in DNA to each other than a red seaweed is to a green variety.
As you can tell, the retreat was highly informative as well as being very hands on. Today I’ll just tell you some of what I’ve learned about eating seaweed.
All seaweeds are edible, but many are unpalatable. Some are very tasty after drying, roasting, or being lightly-steamed; most are not very tasty wet and alive. But people have been eating them forever. The oldest known recipe for seaweed as a culinary ingredient dates from Ireland in the 14th century. Here’s the recipe for a dish called pioka: boil seaweed in milk for half an hour, let it cool, then use it to make a flan that does not contain eggs.
Sea-Lettuce is high in protein and has all nine essential amino acids, including lysine, which is the amino acid that is typically deficient in most vegan diets. It’s also rich in magnesium, potassium, calcium, and the essential vitamins A, B, C, B12, iodine, iron, zinc, and fiber. A nutritional feast! Sea Lettuce has a strong seafood taste and odor, but is easy to eat as a snack or in salads after drying since it crumbles easily into tiny tender pieces.
Nori is probably the most popular seaweed for eating, both historically and today. It tends to have a sweet, meaty flavor pleasant to most palates and is yummy in soups, re-wetted in salads, as a dried snack, toasted lightly in a dry iron skillet, deep-fried with cooked rolled oats as the Celtic “Laver Bread,” and as a food wrap in sushi. (Nori sheets are a manufactured food product.)
Dulse, also a red algae, is another easy-to-eat snack, but is quite salty and often a little fermented in the marketplace; its relatively high fatty acid content results in rancidity after a year or more in storage.
The large brown kelps (Kombu/Laminaria groendlandica, Sugar Kelp/Laminaria saccharina, Wakame/Alaria) can be eaten dried but usually are easier to eat when cooked with grains, legumes, or in miso soup broth. The bright green dried fronds of the local giant “Bull Kelp” are a great snack, salty, and high in vitamins and minerals, particularly potassium, protein, and free amino acids. Real powdered kelp (NOT rinsed, de-salinized, reconstituted flakes) is a delicious, high-potassium, salt replacement in most cooked foods and on popcorn.
Other brown algae, including hijiki/cystceria geminata, sargassum/sargassum mutica, sand sea-palm, are usually best cooked in soups, miso broth, grains, legumes, vegetable pies, and stews.
I usually suggest consuming brown seaweeds and red seaweeds at a 2:1 ratio; roughly two pounds of brown algae and one pound of red algae over the course of a year.
Eating sea vegetables is only the beginning for receiving their optimal health benefits; you have to also be able to digest them and absorb their nutrients. Regular consumption of sea vegetables in the diet encourages your intestinal microflora to develop the digestive enzymes specific to sea vegetables, so most of us can adapt to eating larger quantities in 4-6 weeks.
Your ability to digest seaweed is severely reduced by prolonged or heavy intermittent antibiotic use. Next week, I’ll talk about the use of seaweed in connection with various diseases and conditions. There’s a lot to learn about seaweed!
Here’s another way to use seaweed: