Are sea veggies the next superfood?
Just when everyone finally figured out how to pronounce acai, a new superfood may be hitting the scene. Mercifully, it goes by several easier-to-say names: kelp, seaweed or sea vegetables.
While seaweed may be relatively new to U.S. diets, these marine plants have a long culinary history—Chinese medicinal texts reference their therapeutic use as far back as 2700 B.C. Oceanic countries like Iceland, Ireland, Chile, New Zealand and various Pacific islands also traditionally consumed them. Now, a combination of globalized tastes and big nutritional benefits have stoked American demand. Here’s a primer on why sea vegetables are making waves.
1. Nutritional benefits
“Sea vegetables are a powerhouse of micronutrients,” says Denise Jardine, culinary arts instructor at Bauman College, a culinary school with campuses in Northern California and Boulder, Colo. But a decade or two ago, the only exposure most Americans had to seaweed was in their sushi. “Now you see seaweed in crackers, rice cakes, sea noodles, miso soup, sea-vegetable salad and sea-vegetable kimchi,” she says. Kelp and other varieties are high in both iodine and fiber, and contain eight essential amino acids.
Bauman’s chef-students are given a full-day course on sea vegetables. Instructors load trays with brown varieties such as arame, hijiki, kombu and kelp; red versions such as nori and dulse; and thickeners such as agar-agar. The students are then taught culinary uses, including wakame for pickling, nori for wraps, agar-agar to make a gelatin, and dulse to smoke as a bacon substitute. “It can add a seafood flavor, an umami taste,” Jardine says.
On the East Coast, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has been using sea vegetables for more than five years. Kelp is featured in eight recipes in Bowdoin’s menu cycle, including in a kelp noodle dish with local mussels, a carrot and kelp soup, and a Maine sea slaw with kelp, says Sourcing and Menu Manager Matthew Caiazzo.
3. Environmental perks
To market sea vegetables, Bowdoin leaders asked a supplier to speak at a “Meet What You Eat” lunch, and many staff members toured the company’s aquafarm. Student demand has remained high ever since. “We’ll highlight it as a local product for sure when it’s on the menu, but we don’t go out of our way at this point to really promote it, because the students are interested anyway,” Caiazzo says. “It’s all in the presentation. If it looks good and smells good, they want to try it.”