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Any mention of cooking with algae or seaweed immediately conjures up a mental vision of an 80's-style food cupboard and the macrobiotic diet so greatly in vogue at the time, consisting of soups and other concoctions of wholemeal cereals which, although unquestionably healthy, were anything but mouth-watering.
The most ancient vegetable ingredient deriving from a sea-based culinary tradition, today seaweed mainly appears in Asian cuisines, such as those of Japan and Korea, as well as in a few unusual recipes from Portugal, the French region of Brittany or California and Maine in the United States. In the wake of today's booming demand for natural healthy foods, various varieties of edible seaweed are available on organic food store shelves as an alternative ingredient for integrating with our normal diet, a vegetable for preparing soups and salads, a crunchy high-protein low-calorie snack, a flavouring for bread and crackers or as supplements in the form of tablets and super foods.
So, here is a short guide to help you on your way to discovering the main types of edible seaweed you may like to use in your cooking, in whatever way your imagination suggests.
The nori seaweed is certainly the best known variety of all: rich in beta-carotene, it is reduced to a pulp and dried before being cut into strips for wrapping around maki-sushi. It has a pleasant flavour and its digestive properties make it ideal for seasoning pasta and rice dishes. Try crumbling it on top of a plate of pasta dressed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, chilli pepper and sesame seeds. Add it to the nutritional yeast you use to flavour soups and salads. Seaweed snacks are delicious but do check the number of ingredients first: choose those with a short list containing nothing but Nori algae, salt and olive oil or sesame, and avoid any with added sugar or artificial flavourings.
The kombu seaweed from Osaka is particularly recommended for soups made from vegetables and pulses, since it makes them easier to digest. Thanks to its most assertive flavour it enables you to use less cooking salt.
The wakame seaweed is very similar to the kombu but has a milder flavour. This is the seaweed you will see floating in Japanese miso soup and, indeed, it will add flavour to any vegetable soup.
Dulse is a red seaweed from the Atlantic ocean, rich in iodine, iron and proteins. It is normally sold dried and has to be soaked for a few minutes in hot water before it can be added to fresh vegetable salads.
With their characteristically fine strands, Hijiki are small black seaweeds containing fibre and iron. They are delicious when pan tossed with a little sesame oil and cider vinegar.
What is agar agar?
Mainly used in vegan cooking (but also in haute cuisine) as a gelatine-thickener, agar-agar (also known as kanten) is extremely low in calories and is available in flake or powder form. Just 5 grams of this red seaweed are sufficient, when added to one litre of very hot liquid and dissolved, to gradually turn it into gelatine as it cools. It will not work, however, if our recipe contains pineapple either in the form of juice or solid pieces. When used in the correct amount, it will not alter the flavour of your food at all.
Spirulina alga and klamath
Spirulina alga and klamath are excellent sources of vegetable proteins. The former, a health-giving superfood in detox diets and a valid aid for those wishing to lose weight, is used in powder form in the preparation of pasta, bread and breadsticks; in the form of tiny, crunchy spaghetti it also gives an added kick to salads. Klamath, the queen of seaweeds only grows spontaneously in Lake Klamath in Oregon. It contains the full spectrum of minerals and oligo elements our organism needs. As well as being a source of the essential vitamin B12, it is one of the richest vegetable sources of Omega 3 and Omega 6. Klamath powder is used in salads, soups and for enhancing smoothies or the extracted juice of fresh fruit and vegetables.