The Sea’s Garden
Kelp, dulse and other marine plants provide
powerful nutrition and clean flavor.
By Corinne Garcia
Mica Kerkdijk and her sisters suffered from allergies just about every day while growing up. “My sisters and I lived for years with runny noses and sneezing,” she recalls. “I look terrible in all my school photos, with watery eyes and a red nose.”
Kerkdijk’s allergies eased after she moved from the Philippines, with its lush tropical vegetation, to the Netherlands. But she still remembers once sneezing 23 times consecutively. One day, she came across a website touting the health benefits of sea vegetables and started taking them in tablet form. “After a week, I noticed that I didn’t get allergic reactions like before. After a month, no more allergies,” says Kerkdijk, 48. “I’ve shared these with my sisters since then, and that’s what got us so passionate about seaweed.”
They soon discovered why marine plants help combat allergies. Rich in substances with anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory benefits, these large forms of algae has been shown to help boost overall immunity. Today, Mica, an herbalist by training, and her sisters produce Ocean Veggies, a newsletter dedicated to the health benefits of sea vegetables.
It’s difficult to say exactly when people discovered that plants from the sea could be eaten, but it’s been a staple in Asian countries and many coastal communities since prehistoric times. With the overwhelming popularity of sushi, Japan can take credit for the rising popularity of sea vegetables in the US, although it’s still far from mainstream American fare.
Research supports the health benefits provided by sea vegetables. According to a study in the journal Nutrition Reviews, these plants are “high in essential vitamins and minerals, at levels that would augment a balanced diet if consumed regularly.”
This study found micronutrient levels in marine plants to be higher than in many land-based foods, such as brown rice, lentils and a number of fruits and vegetables. Calcium levels are higher in marine plants than in cheddar cheese; iron and copper levels are higher than in meats and spinach.
Depending on the species, vegetables from the sea also provide potassium, magnesium and iodine; others contain high levels of protein. Sea vegetables contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A, B, C and E. They also provide fiber, up to 12.5% of the daily recommended amount depending on the variety. What’s more, sea vegetables are low in calories and fat.
These significant nutrient levels help explain why sea vegetables have been found to fight viruses and cancer. In one Korean study, women who consumed sea vegetables in the Porphyra family had a lower risk of breast cancer (British Journal of Nutrition 5/10). Some studies indicate these plants can lower cholesterol and blood pressure in addition to boosting immunity. Two species, Ascophyllum nodosum and Fucus vesiculosus, have been found to increase insulin sensitivity, a key factor in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels (Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism 12/11). Kerkdijk and her sisters list 29 health benefits of sea vegetables on their website, from
supporting healthy cognition to promoting healthier skin, gums and eyes.
There are more than 10,000 species of marine plants, many of them edible. Some are more commonly eaten than others; each has its own unique nutritional characteristics and flavor:
Arame—This delicate variety of kelp has a thin texture similar to that of cooked buckwheat noodles, according to Monica Reinagel, LDN, nutritionist and creator of the Nutrition Diva podcast. Some people describe arame as having a subtle nutty flavor, and it is known to be rich in calcium,
iron, iodine and potassium. It can be added to beans, grain dishes, noodles, stews or casseroles.
Dulse—This red, broad-leafed sea vegetable has a smoky flavor. “It’s easy to eat right out of the bag and has the most iron of all the sea vegetables,” says Kacie Loparto, a sea vegetable harvester in Mendocino, California (www.shesellsseaweed.com). “I love to fry it up like bacon and substitute it in a BLT or sprinkle it on baked potatoes.” It can also be used in salads. Loparto notes that dulse will deteriorate if cooked for too long in liquid, so it should be added to soups at the end of the cooking time.
Hijiki—Dark with small leaves, this plant looks like dried tobacco. Reinagel describes it as having “a tender-crisp texture and a very mild, almost sweet flavor.” Hijiki is known to be high in fiber and calcium, among other nutrients. It can be added to casseroles, stews, salads, salad dressing, stir-fries and even burgers if finely chopped.
Kombu—“This one is thick and leathery with a very subtle taste, standing up well to longer cooking times,” says Loparto. She adds kombu to stews as a nutritional boost and uses it to tenderize beans—it speeds the process while adding a slight smoky flavor. It makes a hearty stock, typically as the base of miso soup, or it can be ground and used as a flavor enhancer. Kombu is loaded with vitamins, A, C, D and E, and iron and protein.
Nori—Used to make sushi rolls, this is the most common variety of sea vegetable in the US and has the highest levels of protein. Kerkdijk describes the flavor as “sweet and meaty.” She recommends adding nori to soup or toasting it and eating as a healthy snack.
Wakame—Loparto’s favorite, wakame is a dark green, mildly flavored variety of kelp. “It’s great for making seaweed salad, if you soak it to tenderize and reconstitute it or let it sit in the dressing for a while,” she says. To accompany wakame, Loparto makes a dressing with miso, brown rice vinegar, sesame oil and some toasted sesame seeds; sometimes she adds cucumbers.
Other varieties include karengo, ogo, sea lettuce and sea palm.
Many sea vegetables are sold in dehydrated form at natural food stores and Asian markets. Most need to be reconstituted—soaked in water for a short time or boiled. It’s important to follow package directions and use a small amount, as it expands quite a bit in water. To ensure that your sea vegetables are of the highest quality, check that suppliers are harvesting their product from clean areas of the ocean far from urban population centers.
Reinagel recommends using sea vegetables if you’re getting bored with the same old broccoli and spinach. She suggests replacing the typical lettuce-based salad with seaweed salad one night a week for a blast of different vitamins and minerals. Sea vegetables can also be finely crushed for use in powdered spice blends and for seasoning flour.
The authors of the Nutrition Reviews study believe the health advantages of sea vegetables will most likely revitalize their use in Western cultures. Kerkdijk, and her sisters, agree. She says, “We used to honk and sneeze every morning due to allergies. Now that we’ve incorporated sea vegetables into our lives we harp about their benefits.”
Wakame Cucumber Salad
2-3 4-inch strands dried wakame
3 green onions
2 tbsp rice (or red wine) vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp fresh, juiced ginger
pinch sea salt
toasted sesame seeds, to taste
1. Boil 2 cups of water and remove from heat.
Soak wakame for 15 minutes (or prepare to
package directions). Drain, rinse to cool and
chop into small pieces.
2. Slice cucumbers down the middle, scoop out
seeds and slice thinly. Chop green onions finely.
Mix together in a medium bowl.
3. In a small bowl, combine vinegar, oils, ginger and sea salt.
Stir into salad and garnish with sesame seeds.
Serves 3. Analysis per serving: 205 calories, 2g protein,
19g fat (3g saturated), 2g fiber, 9g carbohydrate, 245 mg sodium
Recipe courtesy of Kacie Loparto (www.shesellsseaweed.com)
Shiitake and Wakame Soup
8 oz firm tofu, cut into cubes*
1 pkg (2 oz) dried wakame
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 chicken or vegetable bouillon cube
4 shiitake mushrooms (handful)
pinch sea salt
3 cups water
1. Combine ingredients in a soup pot. Cover and bring
to a boil.
2. Reduce heat until boil is reduced to a simmer;
leave cover ajar. Cook until the tofu is cooked through,
about 10 minutes.
* You can substitute chicken thighs or prawns for the tofu,
if desired; cooking time may increase as a result.
Sautéed Wakame with Green Beans
4 cups dried wakame
1 lb green beans
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp wheat-free tamari or Bragg Liquid Aminos
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1. Soak wakame in enough water to cover.
Remove when soft and slice into long, thin strips, discarding the center rib.
2. Trim the green beans and place in a large pot of boiling water for 2 minutes.
Drain and run under cold water to cool.
3. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the
green beans for 3 minutes. Add the oil and wakame; sauté an additional 3-4 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and toss with tamari and sesame seeds. Serve hot or cold.
Serves 3-4. Analysis per serving: 131 calories, 6g protein, 6g fat (1g saturated),
17g carbohydrates, 5g fiber
Source: The New Seaweed Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Discovering the
Deep Flavors of the Sea by Crystal June Maderia, published by North Atlantic Books,
copyright © 2007 by Crystal June Maderia. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Pan-Seared Salmon with Sea Palm
1 lemon, seeds removed
2 tbsp oil
1 lb wild salmon filet
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, diced
2 cups sea palm
1 cup water
1. Slice the lemon in half lengthwise, reserving one half. Slice the other half into thin half-rounds.
2. Heat a heavy skillet to medium high and add oil. When oil is hot, place salmon skin side down in skillet and sear for about 8 minutes.
3. Turn salmon and add lemon slices, garlic and shallot. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes.
4. Turn salmon again and place sea palm in pan around salmon. Add water and simmer;
the sea palm should absorb all the moisture. With a fork, continually stir and flip the sea palm
and lemon slices.
5. When water is absorbed and sea palm is tender, remove from heat. Squeeze remaining
lemon half over salmon and serve with quinoa or seared zucchini and fresh peas.
Serves 2. Analysis per serving: 492 calories, 48g protein, 28g fat (4g saturated),
12g carbohydrates, 1g fiber
Source: The New Seaweed Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Discovering
the Deep Flavors of the Sea by Crystal June Maderia, published by North Atlantic Books,
copyright © 2007 by Crystal June Maderia. Reprinted by permission of publisher.