Thursday, December 12, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Seaweeds

     As has happened before, readers in many parts of the world will find the topic of this post decidedly un-exotic.  This is one of those topics where I’m showing my patriotism, in a way, as many (most?) Americans probably find the thought of eating seaweed strange and unpalatable.  I know, because I used to be one of them.  If you’d told me as a child that one day I’d happily consume the nasty looking trash that collected around my ankles when I swam in the ocean, I wouldn’t have believed you.  But I grew up, my palate become more adventurous, and here we are.
     I was surprised to read that seaweed, at least the kind that humans eat, despite its name, isn’t a plant at all—it’s various forms of algae.  Most of the edible varieties are the oceanic, salt water species, rather than the freshwater ones.  And, as I mentioned, seaweed is commonly eaten in many parts of the world.  Many people know that East Asian nations enjoy it—China, Korea, and Japan most notably, but Northeast North American and Northwestern European countries do too, such as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Iceland, Ireland, Wales, parts of England, parts of France, and Norway.
     Nutritionally seaweed acquits itself well, too.  There are some differences depending on the type, but most contain significant amounts of potassium, iron, and “B” vitamins.  Also, seaweed is an excellent source of iodine.  In many areas of the world, this isn’t a big deal, as salt is often iodized, but in places where it isn’t, seaweed could help keep those pesky goiters in check.
     Even folks who avoid eating seaweed dishes have probably had some, anyway.  Because carrageenan, alginate, and agar, with their gel-like properties, are common food additives, and are made from species of seaweed.  (Irish Moss, mentioned in my April 20, 2013 blog post about Jamaican soft drinks, is too.)  Pill capsules and toothpaste are often composed of these as well.
     As far as intentionally eating known seaweed, I started when I began eating sushi.  Both regular rolls and hand rolls usually are encased in a type of seaweed, called nori.  To me it’s a great wrap—it doesn’t overpower the roll innards (usually a type of raw seafood), but compliments it nicely, along with the vinegary rice.  Also in the Japanese restaurants I’ve had what’s called “seaweed salad,” which is composed entirely of seaweed, and no lettuce or anything.  This is very tasty too—the seaweed pieces are again, vinegary, and have a cool firm and chewy texture.  Some parts even pop in your mouth.  I would tell you what kind of seaweed is in the salad, but I couldn’t find out.  Every source I looked at said the salad is made from several different kinds of seaweed, but they couldn’t agree on what these were.  Wakame is one all listed, but after that there were several possibilities, including kombu, agar, and akamodoki.  Incidentally, I learned that actress Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless,” “The Crush,” a bunch of early 1990’s Aerosmith videos, the really crappy Batman movie with George Clooney) wrote a vegetarian cookbook (“The Kind Diet”) and is apparently a major fan of seaweed salad.  Finally, several websites pointed out that seaweed salad isn’t served in Japan.  Rather it’s only an invention for Japanese restaurants based in the U.S.  Our gain, in my opinion.
     The final seaweed type I’ll discuss is dulse, or Palmaria palmate, for those interested in the scientific name.  The sample I bought was harvested in Maine, which fits in with seaweed’s Northeast North America fanbase.  It was billed as a “sea vegetable,” which admittedly sounds classier than a sea “weed.”  Its serving directions were extensive.  Among the recommendations were to serve it raw (in salads or as a snack), soaked in water (for sandwiches), and roasted or fried (as “chips,” a stir fry complement, as parts of soups, or as an additive to pasta, pizza, and popcorn).  Or, to save time, the package basically said you could serve it any way, with anything.  It won’t surprise regular readers to hear that I tried the dulse plain.  The only “preparation” I did was soaking some pieces in water.  Dulse looks weird—it’s an unappetizing brownish color.  Anyway, I very much enjoyed it.  It was chewy, and slightly salty.  Enough to give it a nice “zing” but not overly so, lychee nut-style.  I preferred it dry, but the water-rinsed pieces tasted pretty much the same.  And I could see it being a worthy part of other dishes.  Although, for those on a budget, it was expensive—about $9 for a two ounce serving.
     So all in all, whether it’s a sushi wrap, beverage, salad, or plain snack, I’ve yet to taste a seaweed I didn’t like.  My advice is to get it if you can.

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