It adds a salty kick to any dish and is loaded with essential vitamins and nutrients. Considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet, Seaweed, a fibre rich, sea vegetable is a member of the algae family and comes in a trio of autumnal colours, red, brown and green.
I’m not surprised why Japanese people incorporate it into nearly every dish and this includes breakfast! Seaweed really is a “super- dooper food” in every sense of the word.
This month, I’m shining the spotlight on this slightly exotic and incredibly underrated food. By delving deeply into its history, uses and nutritional benefits and sharing a delicious, healthy and simple Seaweed and Sesame recipe I’m encouraging you to embrace it’s versatility as more than just something you see floating in miso soup, used as a body wrap or applied lavishly as a revitalising face mask.
Hopefully after reading more about this undervalued ingredient, you’ll be inspired to experiment with it in your own kitchen, and reap the multitude of health benefits that come with consuming one of the most mineral-rich foods on the planet.
It’s only recently that Western cultures have begun to embrace the unique taste and nutritional value of sea vegetables, although often referred to as seaweed, or sea lettuces, they’ve been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries.
In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that Japanese cultures have been consuming sea vegetables for more than 10,000 years. In ancient Chinese cultures, sea vegetables were considered a delicacy, primarily reserved for royalty and honoured guests.
This miraculous power food isn’t only enjoyed by Asian cultures, however. Most regions and countries located by waters, such as Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands have been consuming sea vegetables since ancient times.
The thousands of types of sea vegetables are classified into categories by their unique hues. As Japan remains one of the world's largest sea vegetable producers and exporters, you’ll find the Japanese names for sea vegetables are the most common names found in stores.
In Australia, the most common varieties of seaweed are Kelp, Wakame, (the one you’ll notice circulating round a conveyor belt in a Japanese restaurant when you order a “seaweed salad”), Dulse and Nori, the latter being typically man-handled by masterful sushi-rolling chefs.
Nowadays, various varieties of seaweed can be found in health food and Asian grocery stores throughout the year so there are no specific seasonality requirements when purchasing. When harvesting, as a general rule of thumb, seaweed has the highest nutrients in Spring and the lowest in Autumn.
Sea vegetables are neither a plant nor an animal, but rather an ‘algae’ that can grow in marine salt and in fresh water lakes and seas.
These algae commonly propagate on coral reefs and are able to be cultivated at impressive depths, provided that sunlight can penetrate through the water where they reside, an environment not dissimilar to plants, requiring light for survival. Therefore, highly polluted waters can affect algae growth.
Seaweed offers one of the broadest range of minerals of any food, as it contains all the minerals found in the ocean, which, consequently, are identical to many of the minerals found in human blood.
Seaweed’s impressive mineral content can be attributed to the fact that it’s not farmed in the same way as vegetables that grow on nutrient-poor soil.
Perhaps it’s greatest health benefit is that it’s an extraordinary source of a nutrient missing in almost every other food: iodine. Many parts of the world are becoming increasingly iodine deficient populations and appropriate iodine levels are crucial for maintaining a healthy thyroid gland which helps your body to regulate hormones.
Iodine deficiency can result in a wide range of complications such as fatigue, muscle weakness, high cholesterol, heart palpitations, and impaired memory.
You don't need to go overboard on too much seaweed though, according to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, eating one sushi roll will provide your body with 92 micrograms. The recommended daily intake of iodine for adults is 150 micrograms (20,000th of a teaspoon). Excessive amounts of iodine can lead to hyperthyroidism which is known as an overactive thyroid causing symptoms including palpitations, fatigue and weight loss.
Wakame and Nori are great sources of calcium, iodine, folate and magnesium, while purple varieties of seaweed are particularly rich in B vitamins. Animal studies have also shown that regular consumption of seaweed may improve heart health by lowering blood pressure.
Seaweed is also amazing for detoxing the body from radioactive chemicals and toxins, this is why some beauty spas offer treatments involving “seaweed body wraps”.
Incredibly rich in antioxidants, Seaweed has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, anti-thrombotic, and antiviral properties.
Researchers have recently discovered that a substance in seaweed can support digestive health by strengthening gut mucus, slowing down digestion (so you feel fuller for longer) and reducing the release of energy from food. Seaweed is also high in fibre and increases the presence of good bacteria in the gut.
In addition to its digestive benefits, Seaweed is very high in lignans, plant substances that help to block oestrogens that can increase the risk of certain cancers such as breast cancer. Interestingly, Japan has one of the lowest rates of breast cancer in the world.
What to look for:
When shopping, look for seaweed that is sold in tightly sealed packages and avoid those that have evidence of excessive moisture, as the more moisture present, the lower the mineral content.
Some varieties of sea vegetables are sold in different forms. For example, Nori and Dulse can be found in sheets, flakes, or powder. Choose whatever form most appeals to you and will best meet your culinary needs.
Despite your initial hesitations, the more you get to know it, you’ll find that seaweed is actually an incredibly versatile ingredient, which can easily become a kitchen staple.
One simple way of incorporating seaweed into your recipe repertoire is to keep a container of Kelp or Dulse flakes on the kitchen table and use it as an alternative to refined salt for seasoning foods or add it to sea salt for added iodine.
You can also experiment with adding seaweed to vegetable dishes, stir-fries, sushi/rice paper rolls, salads, and miso soups. Dried seaweed sheets can be purchased rom your local Asian grocer or health food store, and enjoyed as a stand-alone snack (just a tip, be sure to check for green chunks in your teeth once you’re finished!)
Seaweed is easy to add to dishes, as it requires no cooking and only a small amount is necessary to enhance the flavour of your meals.
Store seaweed in a tightly sealed container at room temperature where it can stay fresh for several months.
Recipe Seaweed and Sesame Salad
The ocean is packed with edible delights. Sea vegetables may not usually rank high on your grocery-shopping list, but they’re a fantastic source of vitamins and also help to alkalise the body.
Pick up some seaweed from your local health food store or Asian grocer and serve chilled alongside a main of fish.
- 25 g dried wakame seaweed
- 60 ml apple cider vinegar
- 60 ml wheat-free tamari
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 6 drops stevia liquid or 1 TBS rice malt syrup (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ginger, grated
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 carrot, grated
- 2 tablespoons coriander leaves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, to serve
- Place the seaweed in a small bowl and cover with water. Soak for five minutes, then drain and rinse under running water, squeezing out any excess water.
- In a medium bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together, except for the sesame seeds, and toss to combine well.
- Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve.