If you thought vegetables only grew in soil on land, you’re deliciously mistaken. Simple to cook and serve in your favorite dishes, sea vegetables are plentiful and full of flavor. They’re also the pearls of the vegetable family and can add depth to just about anything in your cooking repertoire.
Although sea vegetables are underappreciated in American culture, they’ve long been a staple in Asian cuisines and consumed for hundreds of years in the British Isles, Canada and the Caribbean as well. As tasty proof, try Dashi.
Think you’ve never eaten a sea vegetable before? Think again. Food manufacturers often use processed sea vegetables as thickeners or stabilizers in all types of common products, from instant pudding to toothpaste. (Agar agar is commonly used this way.)
Sea veggies are also chockfull of chlorophyll and dietary fiber and they lend a salty flavor to foods which comes from a balanced combination of sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and many other trace minerals naturally found in the ocean.
A Sea Vegetable Primer
Also called kanten or Japanese gelatin, it’s a clear, tasteless alternative to animal or chemical-based gelatin and comes in opaque flakes. Agar agar is actually a combination of various sea veggies and just like any other gelatin, it can be used to firm up jellies, pies and puddings. It simply dissolves in hot liquid and thickens at room temperature. (This Chocolate Mocha Pie is thickened with agar agar.)
Look for thin and wiry black shreds. They have a sweet, mild flavor and pack in a good supply of calcium, iodine, potassium, vitamin A and dietary fiber. Rinse thoroughly, then soak in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking. Try them in quiches, omelets, stir-fries, pasta salad or tossed into a cold salad with a light vinaigrette. Here’s a delicious example of just how good arame really is: Savory Vegetable-Arame Quiche.
This sea vegetable isn’t green at all. It’s reddish brown, full of potassium and protein and available in whole stringy leaves or powdered as a condiment. Expect a chewy texture and slightly salty finish. Pan-fried in sesame oil, dulse becomes feather-light and crispy and can lend a savory flavor and crunch to any sandwich or salad. Some even liken it to bacon! In fact, you can eat this one straight from the package like jerky. Try this East-Meets-Southwest Chicken Tostada Salad topped with dulse.
Its dark purple color might just romance you. Look for kombu in thick strips or sheets. Eating it adds iodine, calcium, magnesium and iron to your diet — easily added dry to the cooking liquid for rice, beans or soup. There’s an extra advantage to kombu, too: cooking a postage stamp-sized piece of dried kombu with beans will help make them more digestible. Cooking hint: Keep in mind that kombu doubles its volume and readily soaks up water, so add extra liquid to broths, beans and stocks whenever you add dried kombu.
This just might be the sea vegetable you know best since it’s typically used to make sushi rolls like California Rolls. Look for nori to be dark purple to marine green. It’s readily available toasted or untoasted, too. Eat up; it contains both iodine and vitamin C so don’t hesitate to use it as a condiment for rice, soups, salads, casseroles or grains either crushed into flakes or cut into strips.
Its name gives away the fact that this sea vegetable, brownish-green in color, looks just like a miniature palm tree. It’s also called American arame and comes from America’s pacific coast. Expect a sweet, salty taste with this one, so enjoy it raw or sautéed, added to soups or salads or toast some and add to your trail mix. Try this: marinate sea palm and other sea vegetables in a mirin-tamari-ginger juice sauce for an out-of-this-world sea vegetable salad.
Pronounced wah-ka-may, this deep grayish-green sea vegetable is the tenderest of them all. Consider adding it to your diet since it supplies dietary fiber and potassium. After soaking it for about 10 minutes in water, wakame expands to seven times its original size. After being soaked then cooked, long fronds of wakame become silky and almost melt in your mouth. Eat raw as a snack, add to soups and stir fries or roast and sprinkle on salads or stews as an easy way to add minerals to your favorite foods. (Try this Wakame, Mushroom and Broccoli Sauté.)
Sea Vegetable Q & A
Most sea vegetables that I see on the shelves at the grocery are dried. Do I have to soak them in water before using them?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Available in dried form year-round, most sea vegetables (except dulse and nori) are rehydrated before adding to salads, casseroles, quiches or stir-fries. Dried sea vegetables can be added directly to soups or stews and to the cooking liquid of beans or rice.
I’d love to work sea vegetables into my meals, but where do I start?
Try them already combined with tempeh, in pre-mixed miso soup packages, as a garnish in flake or powder form, or in prepared foods.
I’m a little wary of sea vegetables because I’ve heard they taste fishy. Is that just a bunch of bunk?
Don’t believe everything you hear. They are from the sea, but they’re not particularly fishy in flavor. Start with the sweet, mild flavors of arame and wakame first and we think they’ll win you over.