Having spent some time over the years in Japan, I'm fairly familiar with seaweed in dishes beyond the Nori used to wrap Sushi rolls and the Kombu that I use to make vegan Dashi - a broth that is the foundation of satisfying bowls of steaming Ramen. Over the last several years, however, I've been branching out and have discovered a larger, not so Asia-centric world of seaweed ... or sea vegetable is you'll often see it called now. And, I'm in love. In this post, I'll help you explore the "why" of incorporating more sea vegetables in your diet, and the "how" to do it simply and deliciously.
You might reasonably ask "why should I eat more seaweed?" Incorporating seaweed into your diet can offer several potential health benefits. Seaweed is rich in various nutrients and compounds that can be beneficial for your health, such as vitamins (like vitamin K and some B vitamins), minerals (such as iodine, magnesium, and calcium), antioxidants (like fucoxanthin), and dietary fiber.
We can easily refine the reasons to include seaweed/sea vegetables down to these:
1- Nutrient Density: Seaweed is nutrient-dense, meaning it contains a high concentration of essential nutrients while being relatively low in calories.
2- Iodine Source: Some types of seaweed, like kelp and wakame, are good sources of iodine, which is important for thyroid health and proper metabolism. However, it's important not to consume excessive amounts of iodine, as this could lead to thyroid issues.
3- Antioxidants: Seaweed contains various antioxidants that may help protect cells from oxidative stress and reduce inflammation.
4- Digestive Health: Seaweed is a good source of dietary fiber, which can support healthy digestion and regular bowel movements.
5- Weight Management: Seaweed is often low in calories and can be a helpful addition to a weight management plan due to its fiber content and potential to promote a feeling of fullness.
6- Heart Health: Some research suggests that certain compounds in seaweed, such as fucoxanthin, may have a positive impact on cardiovascular health by reducing cholesterol levels.
7- Sustainability: Since seaweeds grow in many climatic conditions globally, their cultivation has minimal impact on the environment. Seaweeds are increasingly recognized as a sustainable food source with the potential to play a major role in providing food security worldwide.
Of course, even good things can be a problem for some people. Those with thyroid issues or who are sensitive to Iodine might want to exercise caution. Then there's the Sodium content. If you're watching your sodium intake, choose some low-sodium options. Allergies? Yes, there are some people who can have adverse reactions. If you're regularly eating Sushi without issues then you're probably not one of them.
Like me, you might have wondered at the use of "seaweed" and "sea vegetable". Are they the same thing? Ar the terms interchangeable? Well, yes and no. Seaweed is technically any non-edible microalgae (single cell) that grows in the ocean. Sea vegetables are those edible macroalgae (multi-cellular) that are wild harvested or farmed for the purpose of human consumption. That works for me, so I'll use the term "Sea vegetable" for our purposes here.
Sea vegetables are commonly used in various cultures around the world, primarily in coastal regions as you might imagine. Japanese cuisine is perhaps the most well-known for its use of sea vegetables. Seaweeds like nori (used for making sushi rolls), kombu (used in dashi broth), wakame (used in miso soup and salads), and hijiki (often used in salads) are staples in Japanese cooking. Sea vegetables are also featured in Korean, Chinese, Hawaiian, Pacific Island, Vietnamese and Māori culinary traditions.
What you might not know is how sea vegetables factor into the cuisines of Celtic, Nordic and Native American cultures. In Ireland and Scotland, seaweed has historically been used as a food source and for its potential health benefits. Dulse is a well-known type of seaweed used in these regions ... and is referred to as the 'forgotten seafood' of Ireland. Sea vegetables have a long tradition in Nordic cuisines in countries like Norway and Iceland. They are often used in soups, salads, and as accompaniments to fish dishes. In some coastal Native American cultures, seaweeds have been used as a food source for centuries.
The most common types of sea vegetables that you can buy at your grocery store or online include:
Nori is a dried edible seaweed used in Japanese cuisine. It has a strong and distinctive flavor, and is often used to wrap rolls of sushi or onigiri (rice balls). It is also a garnish or flavoring in noodle preparations and soups.
Sheets of toasted Nori
Wakame is a species of kelp native to cold, temperate coasts of the northwest Pacific Ocean. As an edible seaweed, it has a subtly sweet, but distinctive and strong flavor and texture. It is most often served in soups and salads. Dried Wakame fronds are dark green when dried and have a subtly sweet flavor and satiny texture when rehydrated. The leaves should be cut into small pieces as they will expand during cooking.
Kombu, or edible Kelp, features in the diets of many civilizations, including Chinese and Icelandic; however, the largest consumers of kelp are the Japanese, who have incorporated kelp and seaweed into their diets for over 1,500 years. Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi, a soup stock. Konbu dashi is made by putting either whole dried or powdered kombu in cold water and heating it to near-boiling. The softened kombu is commonly eaten after cooking or is sliced and used to make tsukudani, a dish that is simmered in soy sauce and mirin. Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It is often included when cooking beans, in order to add nutrients and improve their digestibility. It is also used as a tea.
Kombu usually comes dried in sheets.
Dulse, also known as Red Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Dilsk or creathnach, grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is a well-known snack food. In Iceland, where it is known as söl[ˈsœːl̥], it has been an important source of dietary fiber throughout the centuries. It has a well-deserved reputation as a flavor enhancer and cooks in Ireland, Iceland, Atlantic Canada as well and coastal New England have many ways to use it.
Dried Red Sea Dulse
Let's get to the tasty part and talk about all the ways you can add seaweed/sea vegetables to your diet. The good news is that there are many simple, inexpensive and enjoyable ways to do that.
1- Seaweed Snacks: Purchase roasted or seasoned seaweed snacks from your local grocery store or online. These are often available in convenient individual portions and can be enjoyed as a crunchy snack.
2- Sushi Rolls: Seaweed is a key ingredient in sushi rolls (nori). You can make your own sushi at home using ingredients like rice, vegetables, and fish or seafood.
3- Salads: Tear or cut small pieces of dried seaweed (or just use the tiny dried strips of the Wakame or Dulse) and add them to your salads for an extra burst of flavor and nutrition. You don't have to make the seaweed the 'main attraction' but treat it, instead, like an herb or even a condiment. And, just because seaweed has an Asian vibe, don't think you've got to go all Seasoned Rice Vinegar ... I'll often press on with my usual French or Italian flavor profiles and they play very nicely with seaweed.
4- Smoothies: Add powdered spirulina or chlorella (types of seaweed) to your smoothies for a nutritional boost. These seaweed powders are available at health food stores.
5- Soups and Broths: Many Asian soups and broths use sea vegetables as an ingredient. You can add dried sea veg to your homemade soups, stews, and ramen dishes. Again, I want to note that you don't have to pair seaweed with strictly Asian flavor profiles. As I note up there under Salads, seaweed is an eminently versatile actor. It can play any number of starring or supporting roles.
6- Seaweed Wraps and Rolls: Use large seaweed sheets as wraps for vegetables, rice, and other fillings. This can be a great alternative to tortillas or sandwich bread. Make your own seaweed rolls by filling large sheets of seaweed with a variety of ingredients like rice, vegetables, avocado, and protein.
7- Stir-Fries: Incorporate small pieces of rehydrated or fresh seaweed into your stir-fry dishes for added texture and flavor. This is sooooo easy. And, fast. Rehydrate your sea veg while you prep your other ingredients ... drain as you start to cook. Then just toss in a the end.
8- Rice and Grain Dishes: Mix chopped or powdered seaweed into rice, quinoa, or other grain dishes to infuse them with a unique taste and a serious hit of nutrition and Umami. If you've got some dried Nori, why not pulse it in a little coffee grinder and sprinkle it - just like any other seasoning or condiment - in grains? Trust me. It works.
9- Seaweed Condiments: Some condiments are made from seaweed, like gomasio (a mixture of sesame seeds and seaweed) or furikake (a Japanese seasoning). Sprinkle these over dishes for added flavor. I keep several 'flavors' of Furikake in my pantry to shake over rice or vegetables. If you have an Asian grocery in your area, take a look at what they might have available (less expensive and more variety), although I've also seen it in the Asian aisle of my local Whole Foods store.
10- Seaweed Pasta: Look for pasta made from seaweed (such as kelp noodles) as a gluten-free and nutrient-rich alternative to traditional pasta.
11- Dips and Sauces: Blend rehydrated seaweed with ingredients like tahini, lemon juice, and garlic to create flavorful dips and sauces. I keep a small 'salt cellar' of the dried Dulse flakes near the stove so that I can add a pinch to this and that ... like a jarred or homemade Marinara Sauce or Hummus.
12- Pasta dishes: I often toss a bit of rehydrated sea vegetable into pasta dishes just before serving to amp up the Umami and nutrition. It rehydrates for a couple minutes while I'm finishing the last bit of cooking. Give it a quick squeeze and toss into the pot with the rest. Easy. Peasey.
Remember, when using dried seaweed, you might need to rehydrate it before use by soaking it in water. I just plop some into a small bowl of cold water and it's ready to drain - or just squeeze the water from - in a couple minutes. Additionally, different types of seaweed have varying flavors and textures, so feel free to experiment and find what you enjoy the most. Start with small amounts and gradually increase your consumption to ensure your body tolerates it well.
Always choose seaweed from reputable sources to ensure quality and minimize the risk of contaminants. If you're unsure about how to incorporate seaweed into your diet, consider seeking guidance from a registered dietitian who can provide personalized recommendations based on your preferences and dietary needs.
Seaweed/Sea Vegetable salads are probably my favorite, simplest way to add this nutritious, versatile ingredient to meals.
Classic Seaweed Salad:
Combine rehydrated wakame seaweed (or another type of seaweed of your choice) with thinly sliced cucumbers, carrots, and red onions.
Toss with a dressing made from rice vinegar, soy sauce (or tamari for a gluten-free option), sesame oil, a touch of honey or sugar, and a dash of grated ginger.
The Classic Seaweed Salad is infinitely customizable. You can mix and match types of sea vegetable, toss in steamed edamame (or other beans) or peas, thin strips of carrot, radish, sweet peppers and more. I often top it with sautéed vegan protein such as the Daring Teriyaki 'chicken' pieces or the Nasoya Korean Gochuchang plant-based 'steak' strips.
Then, you might try any of these:
Asian-Inspired Seaweed Salad:
Mix rehydrated mixed seaweed (a blend of different seaweed varieties) with julienned daikon radish, bell peppers, and scallions.
Drizzle with a dressing made from soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, minced garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Sesame Seaweed Salad:
Combine rehydrated Hijiki seaweed with cooked and cooled edamame beans, sliced avocado, and shredded carrots.
Toss with a dressing made from a mixture of toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, and sesame seeds.
Mango and Seaweed Salad:
Create a base with rehydrated Arame seaweed and mixed salad greens.
Top with diced fresh mango, sliced red bell pepper, and chopped cilantro.
Dress with a vinaigrette made from lime juice, olive oil, honey, and a touch of chili flakes.
Tropical Seaweed Salad:
Combine rehydrated Dulse seaweed with chopped pineapple, shredded coconut, and baby spinach leaves.
Drizzle with a dressing made from a mix of orange juice, coconut milk, lime juice, and a touch of agave syrup.
Japanese Seaweed Salad:
Use a combination of rehydrated seaweeds like Wakame, Hijiki, and Arame.
Add cucumber, julienned carrots, and pickled ginger for added flavor.
Dress with a mixture of rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), and a bit of sugar.
Mediterranean Seaweed Salad:
Combine rehydrated Kelp or Kombu seaweed with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and Kalamata olives.
Dress with a vinaigrette made from olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, oregano, and black pepper.
Spicy Seaweed Salad with a Latin Accent:
Mix rehydrated mixed seaweed with sliced radishes, shredded cabbage, and chopped cilantro.
Toss with a spicy dressing made from Sriracha sauce, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and a touch of honey.
Remember to adjust the ingredient quantities and flavors to suit your taste preferences. Seaweed salads can be enjoyed as a side dish, a light meal, or even as a topping for sushi or other grain-based bowls. Experiment with different combinations of vegetables, fruits, and dressings to create your own unique seaweed salad creations.
Other ways to put seaweed/sea vegetables to your diet might include adding some to soups and stews ... and this can be subtle. For example, add a few pinches of rehydrated Dulse to a soup or stew to boost Umami and nutrition. Start small. You can always add more since rehydrating seaweeds like Dulse takes just a couple minutes in cold water.
Toss some rehydrated Wakame or Dulse into a Pesto. Crumble a bit of a dried Nori sheet into some homemade Hummus.