Natural Foods Merchandiser

The Vegetables That Came From the Sea

For many people, the thought of seaweed conjures up images of the slimy substance that festoons sci-fi creatures from black lagoons when they surface. Nor does the word seaweed do much for its image—weeds don't sound like gourmet or even everyday ingredients. So, many in the natural foods industry have taken to referring to seaweed as "sea vegetables." The bottom line is, no matter the name, sea vegetables can be a true culinary treat for your customers to savor—a delicious, delicate and nutritious food.

There are many reasons why the popularity of sea vegetables lags, all based on a lack of knowledge. The most common problem is not knowing how to properly prepare sea vegetables. And while many of your customers might be curious about trying sea vegetables, they have no idea how to differentiate among the many foreign-looking packages arrayed on the seaweed shelf—which is good for a salad, a thickener, a stew?

Steer your customers to the sea vegetables shelf with confidence. After you explain to them what an incredible number and amount of nutrients a serving of sea vegetables contains, show them how to prepare them so that they don't taste briny, and outline for them what a great variety of uses they have in cooking. You'll find that your customers' appetites will quickly progress from curiosity to craving.

What Is Seaweed?
"Seaweed" is a broad category of plant life that grows in the sea, including algae and edible sea vegetables. Algae are microscopic plant life, called phytoplankton, that come in blue, red and green varieties. They provide a unique, concentrated source of nutrients and are used in nutritional supplements as well as in some designer drinks found in natural foods stores.

Of the wide variety of edible sea vegetables, only a few make it to the shelf of a natural foods store. Some of the most popular include arame, wakame, hijiki, dulse, nori, kelp, kombu and agar-agar.

Edible sea vegetables have for eons been food staples worldwide, especially in China and Japan. In the United States, people on shorelines have always eaten seaweed, but it gained more notice with the advent of the macrobiotic movement, which incorporated a Japanese sensibility into our Western diet.

Most sea vegetables grow in shallow intertidal and continental shelf areas (which comprise less than 8 percent of the ocean area) because they need the sunlight to grow. They are often difficult to harvest, because many types are attached to rocks, lie in very slippery areas or may only be available at certain times of the tide. In fact, many sea vegetables can only be harvested by hand, a labor-intensive process.

Most of the seaweed you encounter when you're at the beach is edible, but some varieties are tastier than others. In places where sea vegetables are harvested fresh, they're eaten fresh and have a very short shelf life. Due to their brief viability as a fresh food, methods of preserving sea vegetables were developed early on.

The most practical method is cleaning and drying them, which is the form in which most sea vegetables are sold in stores today. When dried, seaweed has an indefinite shelf life. However, nori is processed differently. It's made by first cleaning the seaweed, then cutting it and laying it out on bamboo screens in a thin layer to dry, where it forms a paperlike sheet typically used in sushi rolls.

Although seaweed may seem like an alien food, it shows up in many common, commercially available foods, and you may be consuming it every day. One form in common use is carrageenan, used to thicken, stabilize, give texture and body, and prevent separation in a wide variety of prepared foods including chocolate milk, toothpaste, instant pudding and even beer and wine. Alginate is used commercially as a stabilizer in foods such as ice cream. Agar-agar is used as a gelling agent in foods such as jams and jellies.

Get Hooked On Seaweed
When you decide to experiment with sea vegetables, your experience may be similar to what many people find when they begin eating fine cheeses. With the first whiff of many pungent and unusual cheeses, you might wonder, "How on earth could I eat something like this?" But once you've eaten a mild cheese like brie, you might find yourself drooling for more, and then surprise yourself by moving on to a Camembert or perhaps even a full-flavored Pont L'Eveque. After eating a well-prepared and properly seasoned dish featuring some of the more delicately flavored and textured sea vegetable varieties, such as arame or dulse, you'll likely soon want to try other sea vegetables, like hijiki—and voilà, you will have developed the palate for sea vegetables. You're hooked.

The key to learning to love sea vegetables is preparing them properly. As a rule of thumb, all sea vegetables should be picked clean of remnants of the ocean, such as tiny shells, before being prepared. They should be rinsed before using, to remove all sand and to mellow the briny flavor (except dulse and nori, which would dissolve if rinsed). Most sea vegetables are best if you pour boiling water over them and let them soak for 10 minutes before use. For the more chewy types, such as hijiki, it's best to then drain and simmer the sea vegetable in water—how long depends both on the specific variety of seaweed being used and the dish it's intended for. For example, when cooking vegetarian food, to add a "fishy" taste to a dish, you can briefly simmer kombu or other more strongly flavored sea vegetables. Or you may prefer the delicate flavor and texture of the seaweed itself not be overpowered by ocean flavors that may have intensified during drying. In that case, soaking or boiling is necessary to remove the briny flavor.

To the surprise of mothers, kids often love seaweed. Because seaweed is such an intense source of nutrients and flavors, sometimes the body just naturally craves that kind of thing. And kids haven't yet formed the "Oh-gross-that's-seaweed!" preconception.

Besides being delicious, seaweed has the not-so-fringe benefit of being incredibly healthy. Seaweed has many of the minerals we need in our daily diets, including iodine, sodium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper and selenium. It's also rich in a variety of vitamins, including B, C, D, E and K. And sea vegetables are some of the best plant-based sources of calcium, as well as good sources of the antioxidant beta-carotene. Some seaweeds, such as wakame, are also a good source of protein.

Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the authors of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and can be reached via

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 24, 26

Sea Veggie Savvy

Here is a list of sea vegetable varieties that are widely distributed and available in most natural foods markets:

  • Agar-Agar—Derived from a very mild-flavored red seaweed that is processed into translucent flakes or a powder and is then used as a vegetarian gelatin or binding agent. Agar-agar is also sometimes found in bars that must be crushed before being used. Two tablespoons of agar-agar will firmly gel one cup of liquid. To use agar-agar, warm it in the liquid, stirring constantly until it dissolves. Then simmer for about 10 minutes.

  • Arame—Derived from a large-leaved, brown seaweed that is parboiled, then shredded and dried. The resulting thin, black strips are mild in flavor and delicate in texture. It should be rinsed well, then may be used in salads, stir-fries, casseroles or soups immediately, or after very quickly stir-frying or simmering.

  • Dulse—A thin, delicate, leafy sea vegetable with a beautiful purple-red color. It can be eaten dried as a salty snack or added to soups and stews for its gentle salty brine flavor and thickening quality. It's also available powdered, to be used as a salty condiment. Dulse is the most commonly eaten sea vegetable in Europe and is often the first sea vegetable many people try.

  • Hijiki—Similar to arame, but thicker, chewier, and slightly stronger in flavor. It should be rinsed well, then soaked for about 20 minutes before cooking lightly. Because of its thick texture and pronounced flavor, hijiki should be used prudently, in stir-fries, casseroles and salads.

  • Kelp—Usually powdered and may be used as a salt substitute that is rich in trace minerals.

  • Kombu—Found in wide, stiff strips measuring from 3-10 inches in length. A strip of kombu serves well as a flavoring, which also adds a gelatinous quality to soups, stocks, stews, and when cooking beans (it is a natural source of the flavor enhancer MSG). Some find that cooking beans with kombu makes them more digestible. The kombu itself is seldom eaten, because it is quite tough.

  • Nori—Sheets of nori are most commonly used as the wrapping for sushi rolls. Nori is also sold as a snack, in prepackaged 1-3 inch spiced strips. The dried sheets improve in flavor when lightly toasted. To toast, hold a sheet a few inches above a flame and allow it to shrink slightly, then toast on the other side. Use nori crumbled over rice, in salads or in sandwiches.

  • Wakame—This versatile sea vegetable is tender and delicate. Its leaves may be added for flavor and texture to soups, salads or stir-fries. First rinse, then soak for several minutes, and cook for about 10 minutes. Wakame is the familiar leafy sea vegetable found in many miso soup recipes.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 26

Good for You, Good for the Customer

As much as any ingredient in your entire store, sea vegetables are going to be some of the most foreign to your customers. One of the first things you should do if you're going to carry sea vegetables is to try them yourself. Experiment with them so you can give sincere firsthand recommendations, as well as provide guidance on preparing them and supplying a few recipes that you've tried and liked.

It's also great to give out sea vegetable samples. Try providing a "manned" dulse sample, where you show customers how to take a piece, peel it apart, and get a nice thin layer that you then let melt in your mouth. Dulse eaten in this way is delicious and addictive, with a texture much like a delicate fruit leather. Some of the nori snacks also make great samples, and seaweed salads make a delicious and beautiful giveaway to entice your customers to enjoy sea vegetables.

Most of all, just try to be lighthearted with your customers when discussing sea vegetables. If you can laugh about the natural squeamishness all of us feel about eating seaweed, that can be one of the best icebreakers. From there, some good recipes, wise preparation tips, a primer on seaweed's inherent nutritiousness, and a delicious sea vegetable sampler can be all that it takes to turn your customers into seaweed addicts.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 26

Arame Edamame Salad

This simple salad boasts a combination of flavors and textures that's hard to resist. The delicate aroma and bite of arame is complemented by the mildly crisp character of green soy beans (edamame) and the crunch of sesame seeds.
Yield: 6-8 Servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes

1 cup packed arame
2 cups boiling water
3 cups shelled edamame
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1-1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons maple sugar or organic sugar
5 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
1 scant teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Rinse the arame under cold running water, gently rubbing it to remove all dust and sand. Rinse until the water runs clear and unscented. Place the arame in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Set aside for 15 minutes, then drain, squeezing excess water from the arame, and rinse one final time with cold water.

2. Meanwhile, place 3 cups shelled edamame (available frozen) in a steamer basket over rapidly boiling water. Steam for 5-7 minutes, or until just tender. Immediately transfer the edamame to a strainer and rinse under cold water until cooled, to stop the cooking and allow the green color of edamame to become pronounced. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

3. In a skillet, sauté the garlic in the vegetable oil for about a minute. Add the vinegar, maple sugar, tamari and arame. Cook, tossing, until heated through, 2-3 minutes. Stir this into the edamame along with the sesame oil and sesame seeds. Stir to combine, then serve immediately or refrigerate covered for up to four days.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 26

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