I proclaim seaweed the next superfood! Move over goji, camu and all the other superberries… What’s so special about these dried, funny looking leaves typically served in your local sushi joint? While underappreciated in American cuisine, sea vegetables such as kelp and wakame have been considered superfoods in Asian diets for many centuries. Here is why you should consider including sea vegetables in your cooking:
- extremely high in trace minerals (vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, chromium, iodine etc) which are lacking in our diets contributing to nutritional deficiencies
- add depth to any recipe with its salty umami flavor
- reduce the need for extra salt
- tenderize foods such as beans and grains, making them easier to digest
From a nutritional standpoint, I love that seaweed is high in iodine, an element essential for proper thyroid function. Since the body does not make iodine it must be part of one’s diet, otherwise deficiency can lead to a host of thyroid related issues, from an enlarged goiter, hypothyroidism to pregnancy related problems. In the past, iodine deficiency in areas without easy access to saltwater fish and sea vegetables (mainland far from the coasts called the ‘goiter belt’) prompted public health officials to introduce iodized salt as a way of supplementation. Today many of us health warriors shy away from table salt in favor of less processed varieties such as sea or himalayan salt, which do not contain added iodine. With thyroid disease so common today (including in my own family) adding a piece of seaweed in my dishes seems like a smart move.
Quick primer on most popular varieties:
- Kombu. Comes as a dried wide leaf with excellent nutritional profile (iron, magnesium, iodine). Add a piece to your soups, stews, beans and grains to enhance flavor and make them more digestible.
- Wakame. More tender than other sea vegetables, add a dry leaf to cooking water of your stews and beans to release minerals and fiber.
- Kelp. Similar to kombu, dried kelp is great in soups, stir fried with greens or sprinkled as chips in salads.
- Dulse. Usually ground to flakes, you can eat it directly from the bag or add it to soups and salads as a flavor enhancer
- Nori. Best knows as a wrap for your sushi delights, toasted nori makes a great snack with a nutritional kick
- Agar agar. Consisting of various sea vegetables, this is a vegan gelatin used to firm up anything from pies to puddings
- To prevent overwhelm with many varieties, I stick to kelp and kombu as my staples. Start with one and expand as you get comfortable incorporating them in your cooking.
- If you are struggling with digestive issues when eating legumes, add a 5” strip of kelp to cooking water to prevent gas and bloating. Glutamates in kelp tenderize beans and make them more digestible.
- Similarly, add a strip of kelp to cooking water when preparing grains to infuse your dishes with trace minerals and reduce cravings for salty foods.
- Make sure you buy organic varieties that have been tested for heavy metals and radioactivity. Following the Japanese nuclear plant disaster, concerns about radioactive waters had me on a search for local producers. The Seaweed Man from Maine is a good source. http://theseaweedman.com
- Add a 5” strip of kelp or kombu per quart of liquid to your soups or stock to not only boost nutrition but also add its priced umami flavor. After cooking, you can either chop it and add it back to your soup or discard it. It’s not necessary to eat as it infused the beans with all its goodness during the process of cooking.