"When morning light hits kombu, it looks like it's dancing in the waves," says Barbara Stephens- Lewallen, a "wildcrafter" who harvests sea vegetables in the waters off Mendocino County, Calif. At sunrise, she and her husband, John, wade in at low tide, working with knives and bare hands to collect seaweeds like nori, wakame, kombu, and sea palm. After drying and packaging their catch, they ship it to kitchens across the country.
"Seaweed has been part of the Native American diet here in Northern California for centuries," says Barbara. "One of our favorite North Coast dishes is panfried nori served with salmon and fried bread." Indeed, sea vegetables have been part of the culinary tradition of many cultures. Ancient Koreans sent sea produce, prized for its medicinal qualities, to the imperial court of China; in 600 B.C., the Chinese writer Sze Teu declared them "a delicacy fit for the most honored guests." In Ireland, dulse is added to potato dishes; fishermen in South Wales have been known to roll sea vegetables with oatmeal and serve them fried alongside bacon and eggs; vast quantities of carrageen seaweed are harvested in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to use as a gelling agent in pudding, ice cream, and pie filling. The harvesting of sea vegetables is a thriving industry, fueled by increasing demand for this versatile and nutritious "super food."
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has long recognized and valued the medicinal properties of seaweeds, categorizing them as salty and cold-characteristics that can loosen phlegm and dissipate nodules and cysts. More recently, Western researchers have found that sea vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals that may help protect against cancer, heart disease, the common cold, and osteoporosis, as well as cleanse the digestive system. High in iodine (essential for thyroid health), sea vegetables are also chock-full of vitamins (especially A, B, and K), calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Many varieties also contain up to 50 percent soluble fiber, which helps regulate cholesterol and blood sugar levels. In 1964, a groundbreaking study at McGill University in Montreal revealed that alginic acid, found in abundance in seaweed, can bind with dangerous heavy metals (such as mercury, barium, cadmium, lead, and radioactive strontium), rendering them indigestible and causing their elimination. Sea vegetables can add a variety of colors, textures, and flavors (from mildly sweet to deeply salty) to cooking. Nori is the dark-green seaweed that wraps many sushi rolls. Burgundy-colored dulse can be pulled right out of its packet, lightly dry roasted in a skillet, and put into a sandwich. Wakame, the green vegetable found in miso soup, is also the main ingredient-mixed with rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame seeds-in a classic seaweed salad. Dark, thick strips of kombu have been called "nature's MSG" for their ability to flavor soups and stews. A luxurious Thai dessert, woon ma praw orn, consists of brightly colored agar jelly with coconut milk.
"My all-time favorite seaweed recipe," says Shep Erhart, a wildcrafter from coastal Maine, "is the 'DLT': You panfry dulse in olive oil and make a sandwich with lettuce and tomato. The fried dulse has the crispy consistency and saltiness of bacon-minus the pork." Erhart, who has been harvesting sea vegetables since the early '70s, also recommends a simple, slightly salty "green tea" made with flakes of dried sea lettuce and hot water.
You can find quality sea vegetables at most specialtyfood stores. To ensure food safety, look for small companies- such as Medocino Sea Vegetable Company (seaweed.net) or Maine Coast Sea Vegetables (seaveg.com) - that bear the USDA Organic label or use the word "wild" on the package. Some larger international seaweed companies have been known to harvest without regard to pollution levels and with little concern for how plants are cut, ripping them up with big machinery that endangers future crops and fish populations. Smaller companies that are certified organic tend to harvest only during the appropriate seasons, in clean waters, and rigorously test their produce for toxins. To harvest your own seaweed, it's best to book an excursion with experienced harvesters. But be prepared: It's called wildcrafting for a reason. "The seaweed we harvest grows on rocks in the intertidal zone, where the tide washes in and out," says John Stephens-Lewallen. "The waves can get pretty wild."