The way Americans are going gaga for sushi rolls, seaweed may one day be as American as apple pie or corn on the cob.
Nori is the seaweed star, derived from a marine algae called porphyra. Processed into paperlike sheets, nori may be too stylized for most people to think of it as seaweed. Certainly, nori doesn't look or smell like the stuff you steer clear of on the beach.
But more and more Americans are eating the stuff, whether they know it's seaweed or not. And some more adventurous eaters are exploring other types of seaweeds, whose flavors range from bland to briny to smoky.
"People do get [seaweed]," said Shelley Young, founder of the Chopping Block Cooking Schools in Chicago, who uses seaweed in her cooking. "People are more open to those flavors."
Funny thing is, seaweed has always been there, hiding in plain sight. Commercially made ice creams often contain carrageenan, a thickener made from dried carrageen, or Irish moss seaweed. Agar, a dried, tasteless seaweed, often is used instead of gelatin by vegetarians.
Seaweed can be found sprinkled on salads, floating in soups and even rolled in oats and fried in hot bacon fat.
Kombu, a dried seaweed, is an essential element of dashi, a stock used in most Japanese recipes. There are even regional favorites. In Hawaii, a signature dish is called poke and it's made with sushi-grade tuna and wakame, a seaweed colored a deep green. In Maine, there's dulse, a slightly chewy and pungent red seaweed often used in soups.
Larch Hanson of Maine Seaweed Co. of Steuben, Maine, has been hand-harvesting seaweed for 35 years. He has seen an uptick of orders as "more and more people are starting to feel the benefits of eating seaweed."
Hanson harvests and sells all sorts of seaweed, from kelp to bladder wrack to alaria (also known as "winged kelp") to nori.
So commonplace has nori become that chef Cat Cora, the Iron Chef America celebrity, uses it as a tool for family solidarity. Her new book, Cooking From the Hip, encourages families to throw a monthly roll-your-own sushi party.
Still, there are some obstacles to full acceptance. Take the word "seaweed." Many aficionados prefer "sea vegetable" or "sea greens."
Carol Wallack, chef-owner of Chicago's Sola restaurant, labeled her signature dish of water chestnuts, macadamia nuts, hoisin sauce and hijiki, a black Japanese seaweed, as a "sea-greens" salad. She thought it would be hard to introduce seaweed onto the menu at first, even though the restaurant has pronounced Hawaiian and Asian accents, and believed that "sea greens" was a way to ease people in.
Even in Japanese restaurants, places you would assume would serve plenty of seaweed, customers sometimes show resistance. Chef Tyson Cole may have drawn national attention with his inventive yet tradition-respecting Japanese fare at Uchi in Austin, Texas, but he said that some patrons find nori-wrapped sushi rolls are just too strongly flavored. The sushi has to arrive in other wrappers, he said.
Increasingly, though, Americans are catching on, fueled by a hunger for more healthful living and good-for-you food. Seaweed's perceived health benefits are a big draw.
Chef Crystal June Maderia, a Montpelier, Vt.-based restaurateur and caterer, believes seaweed detoxifies the body, alleviating cramps and lowering blood pressure. Co-owner of Kismet restaurant, she has just written The New Seaweed Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Discovering the Deep Flavors of the Sea.
Maderia said seaweed is the latest in a series of foods heralded for healthfulness, foods like soy and blueberries and the other so-called "super foods."
Ironically, some seaweeds contain something else: arsenic. Officials in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada have issued advisories about eating hijiki seaweed because of arsenic levels. But no arsenic-related health problems have been linked to seaweed consumption in the U.S., according to Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Seaweed is relatively easy to use. Most varieties come dried and just need a quick soak in water to regain their suppleness, says Chicago chef Takashi Yagihashi. Some seaweeds are sold fresh but salted, he added.
Key for storage of the dried product is leaving the seaweed in its original package or airtight container on a dry shelf away from direct sunlight or heat, says Elizabeth Andoh in her book, Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen.
Bill Daley writes for the Chicago Tribune.
Books on seaweed
Japanese cookbooks such as Shizuo Tsuji's classic Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art and Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen offer information on different types of seaweed and how to prepare them. Books focusing specifically on seaweed include:
Sea Vegetable Celebration: Recipes Using Ocean Vegetables, by Shep Erhart and Leslie Cerier.
Sea Vegetables Harvesting Guide and Cookbook, by Evelyn McConnaughey.
The New Seaweed Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Discovering the Deep Flavors of the Sea, by Crystal June Maderia.
Vegetables From the Sea: Everyday Cooking With Sea Greens, by Jill Gusman.