Dulse seaweed
Photo: Jupiterimages/Thinkstock
Perhaps calling them "seaweed" is a little derogatory. We think of "weeds" as undesirables in the plant kingdom—uninvited pests that sprout up in our lovely, manicured gardens. They can cost us hours of our precious time when extracting them to protect our pretty flowers from being tainted by their ugliness. They're the unruly students who can wreak havoc in the classroom of our "trained-to-behave" children. We certainly don't think of them as sources of nourishment or foods to adorn our plates at dinnertime.

Yet, I like to refer to seaweed as "jewels from the sea" because, in my world, they've been elevated to that level. Perhaps it's because they became my lifesavers at a time when I was destined to be dependent on medication for life for my thyroid problem. It was these humble jewels that came to my rescue, offering me the nutrition my body needed to keep my thyroid functioning without the medication. They promised to help me clear toxins from my body...and should I ever happen to be within earshot of a nuclear bomb (God forbid!), I would be protected from the fallout by mere fact that I was eating my daily dose of seaweed—this fact, according to my Japanese teachers, was documented after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Typically, we don't think of seaweed as this incredible, medicinal food. Rather, we think of it as the stuff that's around sushi, and for most of us, the story ends there. For myself, growing up in Ireland, my summer holidays were spent by the sea in Donegal. As children, we went foraging for dillisk, which drifted in from the sea and clung to the rocks around the shoreline. We picked the salty dillisk and left it to dry in the sun, which further concentrated the salty flavor. Then, we took it to my uncle's pub (which, by the way, was also the grocery shop, post office, drapery store and funeral undertakers), where they served it up in little bowls on the counter. It had the same effect as salty nuts or crisps that they often serve in bars—the salt encouraged more drinking, a clear demonstration of yin and yang in action!

There are many types of seaweed, or many jewels from the salty sea, each with distinct uses and benefits.

Get a list of the most common types of seaweed varieties, from nori to dulse
Also known as kelp, kombu is commonly used in Japan for making dashi broth, which is a stock used as a base for many traditional Japanese dishes. Dashi is made from kombu and soy sauce, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients such as ginger, mirin (rice cooking wine), sake and bonito (fish) flakes. Kombu is high in glutamic acid, which is like a natural MSG and can add flavor to foods. It also contains alginic acid, which helps break down the tough cellulose fiber in foods and make them more digestible. For this reason, a strip of kombu is often added when cooking beans, as it makes them more digestible, less gassy and helps them cook more quickly.

Wakame is most commonly used as an ingredient in miso soup. It swells up significantly when soaked in water and cooked, so a little goes a long way. It also has a tough, spiny piece running down the middle of it—which should be cut up small—and it takes a little longer to cook, so add it first. Wakame can also be soaked and used in salads, combined with cucumber and an Asian dressing made with tamari, brown rice vinegar, mirin and a little toasted sesame oil.

Nori is mostly used for wrapping rice and other ingredients to make sushi rolls or hand rolls. It can also be cut up into tiny strips and added to soups and casseroles or sprinkled on rice and other grains. Nori also makes a great Band-Aid if you get a cut in the kitchen! Just wrap a strip of nori around the cut, and it will seal it. The minerals in the seaweed will help to heal the cut.

Dulse (or dillisk)
Dulse is one of my favorite sea jewels! It is red in color and requires little or no cooking. I love to add it to soups, stews or casseroles, serve in a salad or simply munch on it for a nutritious snack. For a special treat, flash-fry dulse pieces in hot oil. Remove quickly and drain on paper towel—now you have delicious seaweed crisps.

Arame is one of the most mineral-rich sea jewels. It looks like black hair and, coincidentally, is said to be extremely nourishing for your locks. It also has a balancing effect on the hormonal system and is particularly beneficial for the thyroid. Arame is mostly served as a side dish. It needs to be soaked for about 15 minutes before cooking to soften it up, then it can be drained and added to sautéed onion, carrot and whatever other vegetables you wish to add. Season with tamari, mirin and ginger, and serve sprinkled with slivered scallions and toasted sesame seeds. It can also be soaked for up to an hour and served in a cold salad with quickly blanched sugar snap peas, carrot, corn and a spicy salad dressing.

Hiziki is much like arame but is harder and has a thicker texture, so it requires longer soaking and cooking. It is also mineral-rich, very high in calcium and iron, an excellent blood tonic and good for hair and hormonal balance. It is recommended to strengthen the kidneys and is cooked much like arame.
Agar Agar
Agar agar is a natural gelatin from the sea and can be used in place of gelatin in recipes. It is high in fiber and is also a good source of calcium. Agar agar is used to make a dessert called Kanten, in which it is simmered in fruit juice (about 1 tablespoon agar agar flakes to 1 cup juice) and poured over cut-up fresh fruit or berries, left to set. Just avoid using agar agar with citrus fruits, as this will negate the gelling action. It can then be pureed or served as is. I like to pour it into individual serving glasses and let it set in the glasses and top with a dollop of cashew cream or natural Greek-style yogurt.

Sea Palm Fronds
This type of seaweed is a little less available that the rest, but if you can find it, it's absolutely delicious. They're like spaghetti from the sea and can be used much like spaghetti in dishes. Soak for up to one hour, cook and serve topped with sautéed mushrooms and shallots with other veggies added.

Sea vegetables will store indefinitely if kept in airtight containers away from direct sunlight. Their salt content acts as a preservative. They can also be sealed and refrigerated for longer shelf life.

Learn how seaweed can help with weight issues, cancer, sleep disruption and more
  • Seaweed in general is highly alkalizing, which makes it invaluable to balance the effects of an overly acidic diet of meat, grains and dairy products.
  • Seaweed is said to have the ability to rid the body of metals and radioactive residue, so it's good to have after being exposed to radiation from X-rays or air travel.
  • A chemical in seaweed called sodium alginate prevents the absorption of radioactive strontium 90. Strontium 90 is a byproduct of nuclear explosions, nuclear power and weapons facilities and has been linked to a number of ailments, including cancer and leukemia, bone cancer and Hodgkin's disease. One study has shown that alginate supplements can reduce strontium 90 absorption by as much as 83 percent. Sodium alginate helps to prevent the absorption of newly ingested heavy metals from environmental pollution, cookware, dental materials and more.
  • All seaweed contains iodine, which is necessary for thyroid function. The thyroid controls metabolism, so seaweed can help with weight issues, which are often the result of an underactive thyroid.
  • Seaweed is one of the most mineral-rich foods on the planet, containing virtually all the minerals found in the ocean, which are the same minerals in human blood. They're also rich sources of calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin K and fiber. Sea vegetables, particularly dulse, are also high in iron, which makes it an excellent blood tonic.
  • Because of its magnesium content, seaweed can help restore normal sleep patterns and can be beneficial for women who may be experiencing sleep disruption during menopause.
  • Sea vegetables contain phytonutrients called lingans, plant compounds that have anti-carcinogenic properties and can inhibit tumor growth.
  • Wakame and kombu have a mucilaginous quality and a slightly bitter taste, which makes them a good tonic for the liver and intestines and good for relieving constipation.
  • Sea vegetables are a good natural source of sea salt and can be used in place of salt in some dishes.

Some Seaweed Warnings
  • Wakame acts as a blood thinner, so anyone who is taking medication to thin the blood would be best to avoid it.
  • Because of its ability to bind with heavy metals and expel them from the body, if the seaweed comes from contaminated waters, it may contain traces of heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. However, the levels in most seaweed are generally thought to be safe for human consumption.
  • If a person has a hyperactive thyroid, it may be best to avoid eating seaweed.

For optimum health and vitality, I highly recommend making these jewels from the sea a part of your daily diet. There are so many creative ways to integrate them in dishes or serve them up as side dishes—for now, I hope you enjoy this lovely Sweet Potato and Arame Salad, which brings East and West and sweet and savory together in the most delicious way!

With love,

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