Undersea Adventures: Many ways to eat your (sea) vegetables

More than 70 percent of the Earth is covered by water, and beneath it grows a veritable cornucopia of fresh produce. For many cultures, this bounty from the sea is as important as land-grown vegetables. Sea vegetables are as diverse and varied in flavor and color as topsoil veggies, and taste different depending upon where and when they’re harvested.

Salads are a great way to introduce sea vegetables into your pantry. Seaweeds have chewy and crunchy textures like land-grown vegetables, with subtle differences, and make for good variety on the table. Tossing some rehydrated arame, a kelp, into a green salad adds a subtle marine flavor. Arame is mild, sweet and goes well with other sea vegetables in cold marinated salads.

Hijiki, on the other hand, is best eaten cooked with additional ingredients rather than alone. A Japanese seaweed with a brown hue, hijiki has a slightly chewy texture with a moderate to strong ocean flavor. This vegetable has an appreciable seaside aroma, even after soaking it in fresh water and draining it multiple times. It does best in simmered dishes such as soups and hot pots.

An ubiquitous kelp in Asian cooking, kombu is most famous as a major ingredient in Japanese dishes. Kombu is a seaweed favorite partially because of its umami from glutamic acid. Not to be confused with monosodium glutamate, glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid and plays a role in harmonizing dishes. The umami taste can come from many sources, such as mushrooms, chicken or beef, but a stock made from kelp can be a vegetarian demi-glaze, said Kenji Nemoto, chef and owner of Sekisui on South Grand Boulevard. Kelp stock can be added to enhance other dishes or act as a base for sauces and soups.

Kombu goes beyond a behind-the-scenes seasoning – it also helps in the cooking process. Using it when preparing beans brings out their flavors and speeds up cooking time. Adding pieces of the kelp to slowly simmering chili helps to blend the flavors without using artificial flavor enhancers like MSG.

Dulse, a power player in the whole foods arena because of its high protein, mineral and fiber content (and minimal calories), is a versatile addition to the spice cabinet. Elevated concentrations of mineral salts give it a zing similar to citrus, and make it a good salt substitute. Dried dulse has a distinct magenta color that becomes more vivid as it soaks up moisture, but is destroyed when heated. One way to add the color and flavor of dulse to food, without compromising its good looks, is to add it to cooked dishes.

Nori is undoubtedly the most recognizable sea vegetable in the States. Also known as laver, nori is the dark green sheet of crispy seaweed holding together sushi rolls. The demand for it is so great in Japan, it’s cultivated along the coasts using “seeds,” as well as being wild-harvested. Sushi laver’s near-black color is brought out by slowly roasting pulped and pressed sheets of seaweed. However, it’s only one variety of a vast and colorful genus that falls under the umbrella term “nori,” Nemoto said. Other species resemble frilly, vibrantly purple, pink or green lace, and can have intense mouth feel, according to Nemoto. These varieties are also used for roasted sushi sheets.

The vivid green squares floating around in miso soup are wakame. Chefs use it to add texture and flavor to the soup and to garnish main dishes. This mild, chewy seaweed is best served raw or only lightly cooked as its nutrients may be altered when overheated.

If you’ve sampled vegetarian puddings or gelled desserts, chances are you may have eaten agar-agar and never realized you’ve just eaten alga. (See, for instance, the accompanying recipe for Chocolate-Strawberry Terrine.) Agar-agar is a red alga found around the coastal regions of Japan and China. It’s then processed into translucent strips or ground into a fine white powder. Known as kanten in Japan, it has become a reliable hardening agent in the West. Gelling all types of liquids and purées quickly, this flavorless sea vegetable outperforms gelatin by setting at room temperature and delivering a more substantial and solid texture than the animal derivative.

Every species of sea vegetable has its own personality in flavor and texture. Kelps, algae and their kin have much to offer the cook’s table with their unique characteristics, and their uses are only limited by availability and willingness to experiment.


Asia Mart
1243 Castillons Arcade Plaza, Creve Coeur, 314.878.0022‎

East East Oriental Market
8619 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.432.5590‎ or 3365 Olive Blvd., Chesterfield, 314.205.1882‎

Global Foods Market
421 N. Kirkwood Road, Kirkwood, 314.835.1112

Jay International Foods
3172 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.772.2552‎

Olive Supermarket
8041 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.997.5168‎

Whole Foods Market
1601 S. Brentwood Blvd., Brentwood, 314.968.7744 or 1160 Town and Country Crossing Drive, Town and Country, 636.527.1160