Seaweed: It’s what’s for dinner. While it has always played a significant role as a cooking ingredient in East Asian cuisines, seaweed has yet to truly catch on as a part of Western diets. But there are indications that this may soon change. With demands for low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods at an all-time high, health-conscious and adventurous eaters alike are looking for new items to incorporate into their dietary regimens. You’ve undoubtedly heard the argument that insects are the future of food, but we think it’s seaweed that’s due for a large uptick in popularity. Here’s our guide to some of the more commercially available, commonly used forms of seaweed out there today.
Ever have miso soup? How about seaweed salad? Chances are you’ve come across wakame, possibly the most versatile edible sea vegetable on this list. Native to many coastal areas around the globe (and recently nominated as one of the world’s most invasive species), the dark green-colored wakame has a subtly sweet flavor and a silky texture. It is often distributed dried or salted, and it expands greatly in size after being cooked. Look for it in Japanese and Korean soups, as the main component of seaweed salad, or as a side dish or garnish in Japanese restaurants. It is relatively high in various vitamins and minerals and low in calories.
A form of edible kelp, kombu is widely eaten in East Asia. It is sold dried or pickled in vinegar (most often as wide or square strips) and is most commonly known as one of the three main ingredients in the Japanese soup stock dashi. The dark greenish-brown kombu also brings out the true flavor of other foods — it is used to prepare a seasoning for sushi rice, and you can see it floating around the pot of boiling water the next time you go out for shabu-shabu. Kombu is enjoyed on its own after being simmered in soy sauce and mirin, and its powdered form can be used to brew the Japanese tea kombucha. It contains high levels of iodine and is also a source of dietary fiber.
If wakame is the most versatile sea veggie on this list, nori is perhaps the most recognizable. Many Americans associate “edible seaweed” with nori, commonly used as a wrap for sushi rolls and onigiri, and as a garnish in various soups — most notably ramen. A species of red algae, nori is made by shredding edible seaweed and pressing it into thin, dried sheets that appear either dark green or black — it is most frequently sold this way in stores around the country. Several grades of nori are imported from China and Japan, with prices starting at six cents and rising to 90 cents per sheet. Look for the more widely circulated grades packaged on grocery store shelves and sold as snacks (often with a flavoring) and for more delicate, first-harvest nori at top-notch Japanese restaurants. Sushi purists swear — understandably so — that nothing tops a temaki (hand roll) made with a high-grade, freshly toasted sheet of nori.
Health nuts everywhere have been known to speculate on which obscure vegetable will be anointed “the next kale.” They may need to look no further than dulse, a reddish-purple hued seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And get this: It tastes like bacon. Researchers at Oregon State University have created and patented a new strain of dulse that they claim tastes like bacon when fried. In addition to this unique characteristic, dulse contains all trace elements needed by humans (copper, iron, zinc, et cetera) and has a high protein content. It’s normally dried and sold either in whole-leaf form, flaked, or as a powder or seasoning mix at well-stocked grocery stores. In any regard, you can expect to see more dulse — both raw and dried (and perhaps as a bacon substitute) — in the near future.
You’d be correct in recognizing it from the appetizers section of your local sushi joint — hijiki has been part of the Japanese diet for centuries. Though the sea vegetable is naturally brown while growing on coastlines around East Asia, it turns black after being boiled and dried upon collection. It is this color and a simple preparation — consisting of soaking in water and cooking with ingredients like soy sauce and sugar — that most will associate with hijiki (along with a thin strand- or wild rice–like appearance). Rich in dietary fiber and minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium, it’s been touted as a health and beauty aid in Japanese folklore, though several government food-safety agencies have recently advised against its consumption due to significantly high levels of inorganic arsenic.
The first thing to know about Irish moss is that, well, it’s not moss. It is, in fact, seaweed, and it has a multitude of culinary uses. It’s known as carrageen, from the Irish word for “little rock,” and looks somewhat like a baby tree, with blades forking off from a small stalk to form fingers. Though Irish moss is a naturally deep purplish red, the seaweed turns white when it washes ashore. It is most frequently used as a thickener or stabilizer in milk products, such as ice cream, and in processed foods. In countries like Ireland and Scotland, it is boiled in milk and strained before sugar and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, brandy and whiskey are added (resulting in a type of jelly similar to tapioca) or made into a bread. In addition to containing a large array of minerals (a common theme on this list), Irish moss contains antioxidants to help fight free radicals and a softening effect on tissues that may alleviate respiratory problems including bronchitis and pneumonia.