The world’s seas and oceans offer a huge variety of edible, vegetarian options.
While we mostly think of seafood as being fish, crustacean and bi-valve, the category of sea vegetables is incredibly broad.
It includes everything from the nori wrapper on your sushi to the spirulina you take with your daily vitamins. There is kombu, dulse, agar agar, arame, hajiki and more. These exotic sounding delicacies have been a staple in Asian cuisine for centuries for good reason — every little last morsel is packed with fiber and nutrients like anti-oxidants, iodine, iron, protein, amino acids, folic acid, calcium and more, making them super superfoods.
What’s more, this food of the future is readily cultivated — you don’t need water to grow it because it grows in water, making it ecologically sound right from the start. And each variety has a different texture and flavor — there is literally a sea vegetable that will appeal to almost everyone.
We have long used varieties in our food work. For example, we love using spirulina — blue-green micro-algae — for the intense green color it brings to food as well as its mineral-y flavor. We serve our Micro Algae Aioli with Flat Iron Steak and Asparagus as a play on hollandaise sauce. It brings a really interesting, shellfish flavor. Almost a Surf and Turf variation.
Agar agar brings gelatinous thickening properties but it doesn’t impart flavor like edible gelatin does. French gelatin sheets — an animal product — has a smelliness that is almost barnyard-like. The neutral nature of agar agar allows us to make a delicately flavored hors d’oeuvre we’re known for called Wine and Cheese. We take rosé wine, add agar agar and some spices and make a gelée. We put the gelée on top of California goat cheese and a pistachio cracker made from Santa Barbara pistachios. When you put it in your mouth, there’s a burst of wine, cheese and pistachio in one bite. They’re beautiful, elegant little architectural stacks and the agar gelée looks like aspic on top.
Almost everyone who has eaten sushi has had some sort of dried seaweed salad as a side, but dulse, hajiki and wakame all have completely different flavors. Dulse is red in color and known to have a bacon-like, smoky flavor. Hajiki has a mushroomy flavor and is classically prepared with toasted sesame seeds and burdock root. Wakame is crunchy and green and combined with sesame oil, chili flake, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. But they all have one thing in common — they give you great hair and skin.
We use nori for hand rolls and our favorite Sushi Spears. We combine edamame, shiitake mushrooms and yuzu into a salad we wrap with sushi rice and then cover it with togarashi — a mixture of bonita flakes, dried nori, sesame and chili flakes. When you bite into these small parcels, it’s a spicy and very flavorful surprise that is remarkably healthy.
Sea vegetables are not just for human consumption — there is a movement to replace traditional grains and corn with nutrient-packed dried seaweeds to feed livestock. When you consider that one third of the land on Earth is being used in the production of meat (chicken, pork and beef), switching at least part of their diet to sea vegetables could allow for redistribution of this valuable asset. There are bio-fuel implications under investigation as well, particularly with kombu.
Since about 70 percent of Earth is covered with water, the majority of which is salt water, sea vegetable aquaculture is viable in a myriad of locations on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. and completely sustainable. Maine is leading the way, harvesting its first commercial crop of sugar kelp in 2010. Since that time, there has been a proliferation of companies working the Maine coast to cultivate these organic vegetables.
And there are some delicious new options to try at home as well. We’re super excited about a company called Akua that makes Kelp Jerky. It combines kelp with mushroom stems, nutritional yeast, brown rice and pea proteins and offers three delicious varieties. Beyond the Shoreline is looking to become the Newman’s Own of the sea vegetable world, ultimately offering a variety of sustainable sea vegetable options for every day use in home kitchens. We are closely watching and paying attention to these products and developing some of our own. Stay tuned!