Eat Your (Sea) Veggies!

In honor of World Oceans Day today, I’d like to focus on some culinary wonders from our oceans that are greatly under-appreciated outside of Asia and a few ocean communities elsewhere. The unfortunate moniker “Seaweed” probably has a lot to do with it — after all, who wants to eat “weeds”? I’ve used the term “sea grass” in other posts, but perhaps “sea vegetable” would be even better…

At any rate, we’re talking about the kelp and other ocean algae and fauna that are known as Kombu, Nori, Wakame, Dulse, Hijiki and Ogo. There has been a lot of focus on choosing sustainable fish and seafoods for World Oceans Day, which is all good, but I also think that greater emphasis can be made of the nutritional and culinary value of sea vegetables.

For starters, sea vegetables are naturally low in calories, but pack a punch in their high mineral and fiber content. They are generally neutral in flavor, but loaded with Umami which enhances and takes on flavors from the medium in which they’re cooked. Most sea vegetables are sold completely dehydrated, which makes them extremely shelf stable and easy to keep on hand until you need them. This is a quick survey of some of the most common types of sea vegetables available, what they look like, how to prepare them for cooking, and some ideas for how to cook with them. For a more detailed survey of the science in sea vegetables, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization report on Sea Vegetables is a great primer.

KOMBU (Laminaria japonica): This website actually began (albeit as a private site) with a recipe for preparing Kombu in the Okinawan tradition. Kombu is actually a brown kelp, the giant form of sea algae that grow in massive forests from the ocean floor (see photo above from Monterey Bay). I’ve always wanted to scuba dive in one of these forests, although a close friend of mine who has done so says it’s one of the scariest dives she’s ever done because the kelp forests can be very disorienting (you can’t tell up from down sometimes). As a food, Kombu is reputed to have led to the discovery of umami, the elusive “Fifth Taste” that might be translated from Japanese as “deliciousness”. It is one of the main ingredients in the dashi broth that is essential to many Japanese foods. Kombu is available dried: in short strips for use in preparing homemade dashi; in long folded strips to be rehydrated (see photo above) and either knotted or used to wrap other vegetables or meats for use in simmered stews and soups; already knotted and ready to simmer; and (harder to find) in small shreds for simmered side dishes.

To use Kombu in Dashi, simply place a kombu square in a medium saucepan with 6-7 cups of water to make a vegetarian broth and bring to a simmer for 5 minutes(???). For the more traditional fish broth, add 2 cups (??) of dried bonito flakes after the water has come to a boil, then immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove the kombu and strain out the fish flakes before using the light-colored liquid as a seasoning ingredient or base for soups and simmering sauces.

To use Kombu for knots or wraps: Place kombu in copious amount of cold water. Dried kombu strips can be very brittle, so be gentle when attempting to submerge the folded strips in water — if the dried kombu cracks, it is much more difficult to tie proper knots after it is re-hedrated. It will take 30-45 minutes to completely re-hydrate, but if left too long (more than 2 hours) the kombu can also over-soften and be difficult to work with. You might consider using the soaking water for your plants or compost if you’re not using it in a recipe — the high mineral content and iodine can help replenish overworked soils. Recipe: Okinawan-style Simmered Kombu (coming in future, Ashitibichi: Okinawan Pig’s Feet Soup, in photo above).

WAKAME (Undaria pinnatifida): If you’re a fan of Japanese style miso soup, then you’re already well-acquainted with the dark green algae known as Wakame. Perhaps less familiar is wakame as a salad vegetable — it is especially popular when paired with cucumber as a side dish for any fish meal. To prepare wakame, simply soak in water for 30-40 minutes, then gently rinse and drain. Recipe: Namasu (Pickled Daikon, Carrot and Wakame) (photo above)

NORI (Porphyra umbilicalis): The dark purple laver that makes up the crisp dark sheets covering sushi rolls and musubi (pictured) is probably the most popular of the sea veg. It doesn’t require much preparation before use except maybe a re-crisping over direct heat if the Nori has lost its crispness. In addition to wrapping sushi and musubi, nori can be cut into slivers or crumbled and used to top salads and stir-fried noodles, or cut into squares as a topping for ramen noodles. A more unusual nori preparation is nori tsukudani, a thick paste of nori simmered with dashi and sake (sold in bottles in the chilled section) — most often used as a condiment to season plain rice or to fill musubi, but you might also try it on fish or chicken before baking or grilling, or added to a seafood dip for extra flavor and nutrition.

OGO (Gracilaria spp.): Sold fresh as limu or ogo in the Pacific, especially Hawaii, it is eaten as a vegetable either mixed with fresh fish or seafoods as in Poke (octopus-limu poke in photo above), or with other vegetables in a dressed salad. Simply rinse and blanch before using. Recipe idea: Kajiki with Pomegranate Ogo.

I also came across a note that in the West Indies, ogo is called “sea moss” and is reputed to have aphrodisiac properties — it is used there to make a popular drink! But many people may not know that they have seen ogo in its powdered form without realizing it — powdered ogo is the base for Agar-Agar, a clear vegetarian substitute for gelatin.

DULSE (Palmaria palmata): I have to confess that we’ve never actually tried Dulse, although we have a package of it somewhere amongst the boxes we have still not unpacked since our move. Dulse is a red sea vegetable commercially produced in Maine(!) and Canada, and marketed in health food and other nutritional retail sources. It can be rehydrated and used as a vegetable, but is also being marketed as a dried snack food, too. (Where IS that package of dulse we have?…)

HIJIKI (Hizikia fusiforme): This black string-like vegetable is actually a brown seaweed similar to kelp, and rich in fiber and minerals, especially calcium, iron and magnesium. Once re-hydrated, hijiki is most often stir-fried then simmered with carrots and fried tofu to make a nutritious side dish, Hijiki no Nimono (recipe below) that would be part of a larger meal including rice, soup, fish or met, and other vegetable dishes. Of all the sea vegetables, hijiki is second only to kombu as my favorite.

But it comes with a warning — consume in modest quantities. Eating more than 4.7g of rehydrated hijiki in one day *might* result in the intake of an unhealthy level of inorganic arsenic, according to a published study in Canada. The Canadian government, as well as those of the U.K., Hong Kong, and New Zealand have issued advisories against consumption of hijiki for this reason (see reports by country). However, the results of this study are in dispute because other chemicals used in the study may have turned harmless organic arsenic into inorganic arsenic — in other words, inorganic arsenic would not be found in the actual vegetable. The Japanese government in particular disputes this study. The best summary of this whole controversy is available on the Eden Organic (brand) website.

When I first heard about these warnings, I was naturally concerned — I love hijiki! We don’t eat hijiki on a daily, or even monthly, basis but I still wondered if we could be eating too much when we did have it. So how much is 4.7g of hijiki?

My kitchen scale measures in 2g increments so when it was flashing between 4 and 6 grams, I took that to be about 5 grams. Measuring the dried hijiki, 5 grams is about what I normally cook at one time and this would be about 4-6 servings. Remember this is part of a mixture with carrots, tofu and/or edamame, and we rarely, if ever, eat hijiki as a main course, it is either a side dish or even a condiment (to top or mix in with rice). The 5g of dried hijiki came out to 58g after it was rehydrated. And 5g of rehydrated hijiki = one heaping Tablespoonful, which is about one serving size once added with all the other vegetables.

We’re not giving up hijiki — I do believe that hijiki is perfectly safe when eaten in sensible amounts. In fact, for World Oceans Day, we’re even going to resolve to include it and all the other edible sea vegetables in a larger percentage of our diet. So when you think of eating your veggies, don’t forget the ones that come from the Oceans!

Happy World Oceans Day, Everyone!

Serves 4-6 as a side dish (photo shows 6 side dish servings)
(See discussion above)

1 TBL extra light olive oil
2 TBL or 6 tsp. (5g) dried hijiki
1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
3 pieces fried tofu pieces, abura age
(OR 6 oz./ 170g edamame, green soybeans, shelled)
1 tsp. raw sugar
1 tsp. dashi powder + 1/2 cup water
OR 1/2 cup dashi broth
2 TBL. mirin
1-2 TBL. soy sauce
sea salt, if needed

Soak hijiki in enough cold water to cover by 1 inch and set aside for 30 minutes. Discard soaking water and rinse in colander. Allow to drain.

If using abura age, slice into thin slivers, as in photo. (Available in the chilled or frozen sections of your Korean or Japanese market.) Keep aside until needed.

Heat wok or small skillet ovr medium high heat. Add oil and drained hijiki, stirring to coat hijiki lightly with oil. If using powdered dashi concentrate, sprinkle over hijiki and stir-fry for about 1 minute. Sprinkle sugar over hijiki, and stir fry another minute. Add carrots and abura age or edamame, and dashi broth or water, mirin and soy sauce, and stir to combine. Taste cooking broth and correct for seasoning — if more salt is needed, add sea salt instead of more soy sauce. Cover and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove cover and simmer another 3-4 minutes, or until most of sauce is evaporated and thickened.

Alternative preparation with edamame

Serve at room temperature as part of a multi-course meal including rice, miso or other soup, salads, vegetables, and fish or meat.
Possible accompaniments for your meal: Steamed Fish with Ginger & Scallions, Kochujang Chicken, Stuffed Shiitake Medaillons, Watercress Dumplings, Kabocha Salmon Patties, Lychee Sake Pork Stir-fry, Kasu-marinated Butterfish, Mahi-mahi Patties with Lemongrass & Lime Leaf, Pan-fried Opakapaka with Spiced Cabbage Salad, Kajiki with Pomegranate Ogo, Miso Butterfish, Namasu (Pickled Daikon, Carrot and Wakame), Miso-glazed Chicken, Cod with Mango-Sake Sauce, Flash-cooked Watercress, Choi Sum with Spicy Garlic Sauce

More recipes using Sea Vegetables: Crispy Nori-Wrapped Walu & Shrimp with Papaya Coulis, Curry-Glazed Cod with Wasabi-Sea Salad Soba, and Kajiki with Pomegranate Ogo, Namasu, Ashitibichi, Kombu. Many more to follow...