I cannot rave enough about the wonders of sea vegetables. They are in a class of their own, and no other food group can boast a nutritional profile that is as rich or profound. Cultures all over the world have been harvesting ocean vegetables for centuries. The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Irish, British, South Africans, Hawaiians and American Indians are just some of the groups that have traditionally used edible seaweeds for culinary purposes. The Canadians and Scots serve dulse as a snack in pubs; and the Russians serve fermented drinks made from sea vegetables. The Japanese, who probably eat more sea vegetables than any other nation, actually grade the quality of their sea vegetables in much the same way as we grade meat and dairy products in the West.
But what you may not know is that many of the foods we eat in the West on a daily basis contain sea vegetables. If you closely examine the ingredients of most packaged foods you will find extracts of ocean vegetables. Foods that contain thickeners and stabilizers, more often than not, contain carrageenan or agar, which are extracts of sea vegetables.
Whole sea vegetables have become a popular, albeit, hopelessly underutilized food in the West, thanks to the prolific nature of sushi snacks and the momentum of the plant based food movement. There is a plethora of ways to include edible seaweeds in your diet beyond just the ability to wrap sushi rolls. There is an extraordinary “ocean vegetable wonderland” waiting to be explored by the bold foodie. With a mineral density that is hard to match, these delicious alkaline foods can add a depth of flavour and variety to foods, whilst restoring and maintain health, and balancing the body. I started eating ocean vegetables about twenty years ago when I was introduced to macrobiotics; and they have been a mainstay in my diet ever since. I use them to enrich a lot of my recipes and I encourage you to embrace them, as a vital part of a well balanced diet.
Asian cultures have long been acquainted with the magical properties of sea vegetables. These jewels of the sea are amongst the most nutritious foods on the planet. They are alkaline, and contain the widest range of minerals of any food group with minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, iodine, phosphorus and many others. They also contain Vitamins A, B1, C, E and K; and significant amounts of B12, which is wonderful for those on plant based diet. Sea vegetables also contain trace elements such as copper, cobalt, selenium, zinc, boron, tin, fluorine and manganese that are essential for everyday metabolic processes in the body. They contain almost the full range of amino acids and are rich in beneficial enzymes. When sea vegetables grow in the sea-water they convert the inorganic minerals into organic mineral salts, which when combined with amino acids, provide minerals in a way that is easily assimilated by the body. In a world where so many land vegetables are grown in soil that is nutrient-deficient; resulting in widespread mineral deficiencies, it is comforting to know we can look to the sea!
Sea vegetables help to strengthen the circulatory and nervous systems; maintain heart-health, lower cholesterol, regulate thyroid function; and maintain strong muscles and bones. They also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and can increase energy and accelerate the natural healing mechanisms of the body. Sea vegetables are wonderful for healthy digestion and assimilation by helping to cleanse and tone the colon, which can assist with healthy weight loss. They are fantastic for boosting immunity and provide huge amounts of chlorophyll that assists with cellular activity. Sea vegetables also have a magical ability to remove radioactive materials from the body, convert toxic metals into harmless salts, and neutralize harmful carcinogens and environmental pollutants.
Sea vegetables are some of the most alkalizing foods we can eat. They have a direct alkalizing effect on the blood and help to reduce excess fat and mucus. As a result, they are one of the most powerful natural combatants of yeast, fungus, bacteria and viruses. As an added bonus, edible seaweeds have anti-aging properties and have long been known as natural beauty foods in Asia for their ability to maintain healthy hair, skin and nails. So hop into those sea vegetables!
The best thing about sea vegetables is that can be easily enjoyed all-year round. They are becoming more widely available in the West due to the rise in their popularity. My favourite brands of sea vegetables are Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, Emerald Cove and Eden Organics, which are all widely available in health food stores, Asian grocers, specialty shops and even some mainstream grocery stores.
Sea Vegetables grow in marine salt waters and fresh water lakes and seas. They mainly grow on rocky surfaces and coral reefs. They only thrive in clean waters that have a similar constitution to human blood and can survive in shallow waters as well as great depths of up to 200 feet as long as they have access to adequate sunlight. They come in red, blue, green and black varieties and are harvested on a seasonal basis much the same way as land vegetables. They are then packaged fresh, pickled or sun-dried and packaged for convenient use all year round. In the West, me typically purchase sea vegetables dried, and these packages can be stored for many years in a cool dry place away from the light. I store mine in glass jars in the pantry. Just make sure there is no moisture or mould will grow.
Always rinse sea vegetables thoroughly a few times before using to remove any ocean debris such as stones and dust. Rinsing also lowers the sodium content and softens them to make them easier to work with. Like when soaking grains, nuts and seeds, always discard the soaking liquid and rinse thoroughly before using. I always water my plants with this chlorophyll-rich water. My plants thrive! Kombu and Wakame are the exceptions – where the cooking liquid can be used for soups and stews. You will be amazed at how sea vegetables can enhance the natural flavour of land vegetables and grains and add a depth of flavour to sweet and savoury dishes.
As a general rule, sea vegetables pair up really well with sweet vegetables such as carrots, onions, red peppers and corn. These naturally sweet vegetables help to balance out the saltiness of the vegetables and also add a rich vibrant colour balance that makes vegan soups, salads and stir-fries look gorgeous. There are some fantastic recipes for using sea vegetables in all macrobiotic cookbooks. I carry sea vegetables with me everywhere. They make fantastic snacks for travelling and prevent me from grabbing for anything toxic in desperation! A quick handful of sea vegetables is a fantastic pick-me-up if my energy is lagging throughout the day.
There are literally thousands of varieties of sea vegetables. Each has a unique shape, texture and flavour. Here is the brief lowdown on some of the most widely available sea vegetables, and the ones I work with most often.
Agar is one of the greatest gifts from the sea to thoes on a plant based diet. I first started using it during my macrobiotic days and have not looked back. I feel like it is superior to animal gelatin. It is easier to use and has additional nutritional and health benefits.
Agar comes in small packages of clear white flakes or powder that when mixed with filtered water act like a fantastic vegan gelatine that is used to thicken sauces, soups, and stews; and is wonderful and for making puddings, pie fillings, and jelly.
Agar is incredibly easy to work with. I will talk about agar flakes, as they are much easier to find than agar powder. Agar powder is more concentrated and a lot easier to work with. But it can be difficult to source. To use the flakes: Just add one heaped tablespoon of agar flakes to every cup of liquid. Always add the agar to cold liquid for the best results, and then slowly simmer at a low temperature for about 20 minutes. The mixture will start to thicken and gel at room temperature, and will set once refrigerated.
Agar aids healthy digestion by lubricating the colon; and can have a mild laxative affect helping to alleviate constipation. For a fantastic healthy fruit jello for the kids: just thicken pure fruit juice and set in the fridge with chunks of fruit pieces. Serve with some cream and devour. I use agar a lot to thicken desserts and just could not live without it.
Arame is a fantastic brown, spaghetti-like sea vegetable that has a sweet nutty flavour that can be enjoyed cooked or raw. It is loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, iodine and Vitamin A. It is also known to contain lignans which protect against cancer. It usually comes packaged in a dry state in shredded pieces like hijiki that can be easily rehydrated by soaking in some filtered water for about 15 minutes.
I will often top raw salads with a heap of arame for a mineral boost. I also like to stir-fry arame with some red onions and greens; or mix it in the food processor with some vegetables and cooked grain to make veggie burgers. Arame has a mild flavour that makes it a versatile addition to most savoury dishes. It can be added to vegetarian pilafs, stews and soups, as well as baked goods. Arame is often served as a side dish in macrobiotic cuisine and makes a fantastic side salad or pickle mix.
Dulse is a reddy brown sea vegetable that grows along shores of the North Atlantic. Dulse has a rich smoky flavour and makes a fantastic quick snack for travelling. It is loaded with iron and always gives me a boost of energy when I am driving in the car or sitting on a plane. Dulse does not need to be soaked first. It has a nice chewy texture that can be enjoyed right out of the packaging. It is fantastic for use in salads, and is a wonderful way to replicate the fish anchovy taste in raw caesar salads.
I like to stir-fry strips of dulse with some onions and green vegetables for a mineral-rich stir-fry; or try adding some vegetable broth to this mixture for an iron-building energy soup. It is full of flavour and makes a fantastic base for soups and stews. Dulse has about thirty times more potassium than a banana and two hundred times more iron than beetroot. It is high vitamin B and contains significant amount of protein.
Dulse is sold as large pieces or can be found as a granulated condiment. I really love the Maine Coast Sea Seasonings Organic Dulse with Garlic granules. Powdered dulse has a slightly spicy flavour that makes a fantastic alternative for salt and pepper.
Hijiki is a little bit more high-maintenance than some of the other sea vegetables, requiring a longer soaking time, but is well worth the effort, containing about fourteen times more calcium than dairy milk, and a ton of protein. Hijiki is a black spaghetti-like sea vegetable that grows on the rocky coastline of Japan, China and Korea. It is loaded with fibre and calcium, iron and magnesium. It has a mild, salty, fishy flavour.
Hijiki needs to be rinsed really thoroughly after soaking. Soak for at least a few hours for the best results. Then simmer for about an hour to get it really tender. It is a wonderful addition to soups and stews, and is fantastic stir-fried with onions, carrots and greens or used in salads.
Just note that hijiki has been shown to contain inorganic arsenic. Exposure to small amounts does not pose a health risk. But I would not recommend consuming hijiki in large amounts.
Irish moss is just a nutritional powerhouse -- rich in iodine, sulphur, calcium, potassium, manganese; Vitamins A, C, D, E, F and K, Vitamins B1, B2 and B12, as well as protein. This impressive nutritional profile makes it incredibly useful for restoring the body after a period of great illness and for strengthening the respiratory system.
Irish moss is a red algae that grows along the coast of North America and the Atlantic coast of Europe. It has a natural gelatinous texture and is used widely to produce carrageenan which is used as a thickener in a lot of packaged ice creams and desserts. Carrageenan has been linked to cancer in some studies, and I consume it very rarely.
Irish moss varies in colour from yellow to brown, and turns a creamy colour when soaked. Irish moss will keep dry in a cool dark place for about a year. It is great for thickening desserts or for adding a springiness to raw dehydrated sprouted breads.
Rinse your moss a few times and then soak in filtered water for about twenty four hours. Make sure you change the water a couple of times during this time. As soon as it turns a creamy colour and has doubled in size it is ready. You can store this in the fridge in a glass container for about three weeks. Just make sure you change the filtered water every day. Don’t worry if it smells a bit like the sea. This doesn’t affect the taste or smell of your dishes. Blend the soaked Irish moss in the blender with enough filtered water to form a paste that can be used to thicken puddings, ice creams, pie fillings and anything else.
Kelp is a light brown/green sea vegetable that grows in plentiful amounts on the East and West coasts of the United States in cold waters. You can find kelp fresh or dried, and packaged in whole pieces, granulated, flaked or powdered. Kelp is loaded with minerals and is one of the richest sources of iodine -- about 150 times more than land vegetables. Kelp also contains about eight times more magnesium than land vegetables. It is also a great source of protein. Kelp is widely taken in capsule form as a supplement. But there are other ways to introduce it into your diet.
I will often sprinkle kelp flakes on my steamed vegetables or salads for a mineral hit. Maine coast sea seasonings have fantastic organic kelp granules that come in a convenient shaker. This is a really easy way to introduce kelp into your diet. I also chop it up to add a mineral hit to stir-fries, soups and stews. It adds a depth of flavour that is delicious. Kelp is also fantastic mixed into veggie burgers and grain patties. Kelp noodles are fantastic for raw salads.
Kombu is a dark green/brown coloured sea vegetable that grows in the waters of Northern Japan. It is full of flavour and loaded with protein, calcium, iodine, potassium, and Vitamins A, C and B. It is enjoyed in a variety of ways in Japanese cuisine, as well as in other parts of Asia. You can find it dried, pickled and frozen at Asian markets and gourmet grocers. I usually purchase it dried, where it is sold in wide thick strips that need to be soaked or wiped before using. Kombu forms a white powdery outer layer when it is dried. This is completely normal and actually desirable, as it is full of flavour.
I soak kombu in filtered water for 1 hour and then simmer to make a mineral-rich broth to cook grains in. If you are making Japanese stocks, kombu forms the base for dashi stock. It also brings an extraordinary depth of flavour to other soups and stews. I will also use kombu dashi to make gomadofu - sesame tofu.
I soak all of my legumes with a strip of kombu to help remove some of the gas and make them more digestible. It works a treat! I also like to simmer strips of kombu and then stir-fry with green vegetables and soy sauce. You can also soak, season and dehydrate strips of kombu in a dehydrator or on the low setting of your oven to make mineral-rich sea chips. They are loaded with phosphorus and are delicious! Dried kombu will keep in a sealed container in a cool, dark, dry place for a few years. Make sure there is no moisture or mould will develop.
Nori is sometimes called ‘laver’, and is the sea vegetable that most people are familiar with, being the most widely consumed seaweed in the West due to its prolific use in wrapping sushi rolls. But nori is not just for Japanese sushi (finger food). These purple black sheets can be chopped up for use in stir-fries, soups, baked goods, and raw desserts; and makes a fantastic nutritious snack.
Try making your own “nori chips” by cutting a toasted nori sheet into strips. These snacks are widely available at health food stores. Just be careful, as they tend to have a lot of added salt and sugar. I prefer to make my own. If your nori sheets are a bit soft you can easily crisp them up by quickly passing over a gas flame on your stove-top a couple of times. I love to wrap sprouts and raw vegetables up in sheets of nori for a quick lunch. Wrapping up stir-fried vegetables and grains in nori sheets makes a wonderful dinner in the winter too. Nori is delicious and easy to enjoy. It is also absolutely loaded with nutrients! It has twice the protein content of some meats and as much Vitamin A as carrots.
Wakame is a lot like kombu in that the soaking liquid can be used as a fantastic mineral-rich base for soups and stews. Wakame can be found fresh or dried. If using dried wakame, purist macrobiotic chefs will say that soaking wakame reduces its flavour. But I think that dried wakame needs to be soaked for about an hour to reduce the saltiness and get it really soft and tender which makes it easier to work with.
Wakame is a long thin stringy greenish sea vegetable that has a hard spine that needs to be removed before using for best results. It is typically available in two varieties – brown and green. The brown wakame has a much stronger flavour than the green, which is mild and light. Wakame is loaded with protein, and is a rich source of iron and magnesium.
Wakame has a delightful sweet taste. I like to chop it into strips and toss with vegetables for a fantastic raw Summer salad mixed with cucumber and fresh greens. It forms the base for delicious seaweed salads, and is the seaweed of choice for most miso soups. It is also wonderful in stews and stir-fries, and makes a fantastic addition to grain patties and veggie burgers.