Kale is the healthy vegetable to be eating right now. It isn’t actually a huge amount healthier than most other green vegetables like broccoli or cabbage, but it tastes and looks inherently good for you: fibrous, a little bitter and clearly jam-packed with iron. It’s also one of the few vegetables around during the “hungry gap” of late winter and early spring, when little else in season. For that reason, it was widely promoted during the Second World War in the UK.
Seaweed has lots of things going for it too, but has never really made it out of the health food aisle of Western food culture. The only exceptions of course, are in the wilder parts of Europe’s Atlantic coast — Scandinavia and the Celtic nations in particular. Instead, when we do choose to eat seaweed, it’s a dipping of the toes into Japanese cuisine (the nori used to wrap sushi, is in fact the same stuff used to make Welsh laverbread), or a foraged sea vegetable used as a garnish in a high-end restaurant. The things that make seaweeds healthy are far too numerous to list in their entirety, but range from the supposed ability to stop your hair going grey and a perfect balance of essential amino acids to a high fibre and mineral content. Add to the health benefits the fact that it grows wild where nothing else can, and you’ve got the sustainability box ticked as well.
Probably the reason we’re put off seaweed (and would rather eat kale or quinoa or buckwheat) is mostly because it’s all slippery and gross on the beach! That and the names: gutweed and bladderwrack are both perfectly edible but certainly don’t sound it. Most of the seaweeds that are sold commercially instead use their Japanese names, but this no doubt just makes them seem that bit more intimidating on the weekly shop: sea mustard sounds like any other salad leaf, but it is invariably labelled as wakame (pronounced wah-kah-may). The other most common seaweeds you’ll see, dehydrated, in the shops are nori, used to wrap sushi or to make delicious snacks, and kombu, a kind of kelp used in Asian stocks (and is also fantastic deep fried).
Wakame, or sea mustard and “fern of the seas” to the French, is my favourite seaweed to eat and is probably the easiest kind to incorporate into your food. It needs little more than a 5 minute soak in water to turn from small black flakes into a bright green “leaves” that can be eaten raw in a salad. Also, unlike the strong flavours of many seaweeds, wakame is mild, with a slightly firm texture. It increases massively in size, so be sparing, and add to salads or light broths — it’s a classic addition to Japanese miso soup, and in Korea it is simmered in beef or anchovy stock to make a soup traditionally served on birthdays, nowadays accompanied by a cake of course. If salads and light soups aren’t your thing, it can also be deep fried to produce the crispy seaweed you get from a Chinese takeaway. My personal preference is a Korean preparation (no surprises there…) where small pieces of the dried wakame are stir fried in a little very hot oil for 5 minutes, and tossed with salt, sugar and toasted sesame seeds to eat sprinkled over rice or anything else you can think of.
All in all, seaweed is healthy, affordable, sustainable and versatile in the kitchen. There’s no real reason why we shouldn’t be eating more of the stuff. Squeamishness is no excuse for not giving wakame and the rest a try. You might just like it.