Wondrous Vegetables from the Sea: What They Are and How to Use Them

Clockwise from top: bars of agar agar, sliced kombu, kombu, hijiki, sheets of nori, wakame, in the center: dulse

Writing about intriguing foods which are under-appreciated in the U.S. seems to be one of my themes. Sea vegetables (marine algae) certainly fall into this category. Today, I begin an exploration of these edible marvels: what they are, where to find them, how to eat them.  I’m not a marine biologist, so I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of the thousands of varieties of sea vegetables which are cultivated or grow in nature.  I’ll concentrate on the eight to ten varieties most readily available to purchase (I’ve included links to people who sell sea vegetables online at the end of  this post).

So, why do I find sea vegetables so interesting?  Three reasons, mainly.  First, to me and to most of us, they provide new flavors, textures, colors and tastes. They expand the range of materials we cooks have to work with. Incorporating them into our cuisine breaks new culinary ground, and I find that exciting.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is their nutritional profile. Like everything natural, they vary from variety to variety and harvest to harvest, but generally, they are remarkably high in minerals and trace elements, especially iron, calcium, iodine, magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins A and K and folic acid, while being low in fat and cholesterol free. And thirdly, some of the best ones are gathered in our own back yard (I consider the Mendocino coast part of our back yard).

So let’s get started with a few of the common varieties…

Pear and Red Grape Kanten, gelled with agar agar (recipe after the jump)

AGAR AGAR (sometimes called kanten), pictured above as white, almost translucent bars, also comes in flake and powered form and is used world-wide as a high fiber, but naturally delicate gelling agent.  Agar is probably the most processed of the sea vegetables commonly used and according to what I’ve read the flake and bars sold by well-known natural food brands are of better quality than the agar widely available in Asian food stores where the prices are much lower. I use agar agar to make all sorts of delicately gelled desserts, especially in warm weather when something light and refreshing is called for. One bar or 1/4 cup agar flakes will set 3-4 cups of liquid, although batches of agar can vary in strength, and liquids which are acidic will require more agar to gel them. Tear the bars into smaller pieces and rinse in cold water before putting then into the hot liquid to be gelled. Stir well, and once the agar is completely dissolved, pour the liquid into a shallow pan to cool.  Be patient, as agar’s gelling quality reveals itself only as the liquid cools. See my recipe for pear and red grape kanten (made with agar agar) below and check out my recipe for Meyer Lemon-Maple Mousse here.

WAKAME–If you’ve ever eaten miso soup in a Japanese restaurant, chances are you’ve eaten wakame, which shows up as the tender, dark green leafy strips which often float to the top of the soup. For convenience, you can buy wakame pre-cut into thin strips ready to toss into a soup.  Do so with discretion, as the wakame will expand by three to four times.  To use the wakame which comes in bigger pieces, wipe it with a clean towel, or briefly rinse with water, then soak in water to cover for 4-5 minutes (some wakame has a tough stem in the middle, which you can cut out with a sharp knife).  At this point the wakame is edible and ready to use.  The Japanese make a refreshing little salad with soaked wakame cut into strips, cucumber thinly sliced, and a dressing of rice vinegar, sugar (substitute a sweetener of your choice), salt and perhaps a sprinkle of soy sauce, adding a squeeze of lemon or orange juice would also be welcome as would a garnish of toasted sesame seeds. Wakame is also an interesting addition to bean soups and stews and to tofu dishes. Simmered for very long in a broth, wakame will mostly dissolve. Most wakame sold in the U.S. has a Japanese, Korean or Chinese provenance, but ALARIA, a closely related sea vegetable is gathered along the coasts of Maine and Atlantic Canada. Some alaria is thicker and saltier than wakame and needs to be soaked longer, or briefly cooked before use in recipes as a wakame substitute.

HIJIKI–Most famously produced and eaten in Japan, but also in Korea and China, hijiki is one of the stronger tasting sea vegetables and I recommend mixing it with well-liked vegetables (carrots are ideal)  when serving it to people who are new to it. And yet, it can be quite delicious. Because it comes dried in little black strands, all you need to do is rinse, soak it in water to cover for 20-30 minutes,  drain, then sauté or simmer it until tender.  Typical seasonings would be soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil and sesame seeds.  Government agencies in the U.K., Canada and New Zealand have reported that some hijiki contains significantly higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other sea vegetables, but the Japanese Ministry of Health has countered that one would have to eat completely unrealistic amounts of hijiki to be at risk for arsenic poisoning. Until this controversy is cleared up, it’s probably a good idea to eat hijiki in small quantities, to eat organic hijiki, or to use ARAME, a similar looking sea vegetable which is milder tasting and quicker cooking and can be substituted for hijiki in most recipes.

KOMBU, like wakame, is a member of the kelp family and is related to the long strands of sea weed you sometimes see on the beach. Inexpensive kombu in Asian markets was most likely cultivated in Japan, Korea or China. Kombu is one of the ingredients in dashi, the soup stock essential to Japanese cuisine and is often cooked with beans because it is thought to increase digestibility. Kombu is most often sold dried in brittle, dark greenish-brown strips, packaged in plastic. Rinse before using.  Add to soups, stews, bean dishes.  If cooked long enough, some kombu will dissolve. If it doesn’t, you will probably want to remove it before serving the dish.  However, if the kombu is tender enough, it can be deliciously edible. Kombu is most often used for background flavor and nutrition rather than as a dish on it’s own. The Japanese believe kombu adds a natural savory quality to food, and in fact developed MSG as a synthetic replacement for the flavor it adds.

In future posts I will write about nori, dulse, sea palm, sea lettuce and more about arame. In the meantime, if you are shopping for sea veggies, Asian markets stock agar agar, wakame, nori, kombu and sometimes, hijiki.  Well-stocked natural food stores should have all those and dulse, sea palm and arame as well.  Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco has the best selection of sea vegetables in the Bay Area, many of them in bulk.  But why not order directly from the harvesters and support a small, and mostly local, cottage industry? These Mendocino area companies sell online:

Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables sells Pacific Coast kombu, ocean ribbons, sea palm, wakame, nori and other products.

Rising Tide Sea Vegetables sells California kombu, wakame, nori, sea palm, sea lettuce, Atlantic dulse, Japanese hijiki and arame and other products.

Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company sells Mendocino kombu and sea palm and North Atlantic dulse.

For Atlantic Coast sea veggies, the premiere supplier is Maine Coast Sea Vegetables.

PEAR AND RED GRAPE KANTEN

A light, nearly fat free and easy-to-make alternative to more complicated desserts.This can be adapted to many kinds of juice and fruit–just be cautious with  pineapple or similar very acidic fruits–they can interfere with the gelling process. Choose ripe fruit and a nicely sweet fruit juice and you will not need to add extra sweeteners.

1 quart 100% juice, apple, pear or a blend (I used a blend of apple, grape, pomegranate and cranberry)

1-2 tablespoons maple syrup, optional, or sweetener of choice

1 bar agar agar, or 1/4 cup agar flakes

3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced (or use 3 cups of whatever fruit mixture is in season and appeals to you)

1 1/2 cups (about 8 ounces) red seedless grapes, washed and removed from the stem

1. If using bar agar agar, rinse with water, tear into 1-inch pieces and set aside, if using flakes, just measure them out.

2. In a large sauce pan, bring the juice to a boil, add the agar and stir well.  Reduce heat to a simmer and, stirring occasionally, simmer about five minutes or until the agar is completely dissolved.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the fruit and arrange it in a 9X9-inch or similarly-sized pan.

4. Pour the juice over the fruit and allow to cool until firmly set (30-40 minutes).  Refrigerate if you want to speed up the process.

5. Serve chilled with your favorite whipped or frozen topping, if you like (6-8 servings).

Ron Hinckle and Shep Ehart talk about harvesting sea veggies on Maine’s  north coast:

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