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Whenever I travel, I do my best to spend a little time checking out the local foods. I’ll poke around on the internet and look at menus and usually find something intriguing. Not long ago we were far up the California coast, and I found a menu for a vegetarian restaurant serving a six-course “sea vegetable dinner” that featured sea palm, nori, dulse and wakame—all forms of seaweed. I have to confess that we settled for something a bit less adventurous, but it did get me wondering why we don’t see more sea vegetables on menus. At least here on the coast where it’s ‘ripe for the picking.’
Calling them “vegetables” isn’t quite right, though: seaweeds are technically algae, and most aren’t considered plants. But since we eat them as such, their nutritional profile is usually compared to their land-based counterparts, and they stack up incredibly well.
Since the ocean is chock full of minerals, seaweeds absorb a pretty impressive array, like calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, iodine and zinc. They’re also one of the few ‘vegetable’ sources of vitamin B12, which is a huge plus for vegetarians who have a tough time getting enough. And since seaweeds live fairly close to the surface where they’re exposed to potentially damaging ultraviolet light, they produce a lot of protective antioxidants, too.
For many people, the only seaweed they’re familiar with is the dark wrapper on their sushi. But chances are you eat more seaweed-derived products than you think, even if sushi doesn’t figure prominently in your diet. Because of their water-holding properties, some of the natural carbohydrates found in seaweed—like carrageenan, agar or alginate—are used to thicken all sorts of foods. These unusual carbohydrates are added to soy milk, chocolate milk, ice cream, yogurt, soups and salad dressings to give them better texture. And they can also contribute soluble fiber to your diet as well.
If you want to try adding some seaweed to your diet, it’s not something you’re likely to find on the menu at your local diner. Asian restaurants are probably the best place to look. Aside from the familiar sushi wrappers, dried seaweed flakes are used for seasoning in lots of dishes, and you might even find some fresh seaweed—usually added to soups or stir-fried with a little soy sauce and sesame oil. If you’ve got an Asian grocery store near you, you’re likely to find the dried variety, and if you’re lucky (and adventurous) you might find some fresh seaweed, too.
I found some dried wakame, a type of kelp, at my local health food store. The directions said not to cook the leaves, just to soak them, so I added a bit to an Asian-style soup I was making. It tasted great, and it thickened the broth a little bit, too. And at the last minute I added some cooked shrimp, primarily so I could keep my husband from quizzing me about what was in his soup. I told him, in all honesty, “Seafood.”