The fads of this year rode in on a unicorn and swam away with the mermaids. We lined up for unicorn frappuccinos and oohed at Adeline Waugh’s fantastical mermaid toasts on Instagram.
The world of mythical creatures and rainbows was on our radar so it wasn’t surprising that a cooking class on “mermaid salads and super seaweed recipes” caught our attention and became inspiration for this feature.
The idea to make a mermaid salad morphed into an entire fun menu featuring seaweeds that Ariel, Adella, Attina and gang would fight scales and nails for.
Turns out that seaweed is super nutritious and delicious. Huffington Post calls it “the green superfood you are not eating but should be”. Jamie Oliver credited his slimmer look two years ago to his seaweed diet, calling it “the most nutritious vegetable in the world”.
Seaweed is one of the most nutritionally dense foods in the plant kingdom. Many articles trumpet the fact that sea vegetables contain 10 to 20 times more vitamins and minerals than land vegetables.
Its best-known benefit is being a source of a nutrient missing in most other food: iodine, which is critically important to maintaining a healthy thyroid, a gland that helps produce and regulate hormones.
Seaweed is also high in iron, vitamin C (which aids iron absorption), antioxidants, soluble and insoluble fibre, vitamin K, vitamin B-12 and a range of other important nutrients.
It is high in protein and low in calories – 10 sheets of nori have just 22 calories – and contain certain compounds not found in other food sources, including fucoidan, a carbohydrate that has anticoagulant and antiviral properties.
Studies show that fucoidan, a natural component of brown seaweed, has anti-cancer activity against various cancers and protects against toxicity associated with chemotherapy and radiation.
Daily consumption of seaweed has been proposed as a factor in explaining lower postmenopausal breast cancer incidence and mortality rates in Japanese women.
Alginate, another substance in brown seaweed, strengthens gut mucus which protects the gut wall, slows down digestion so you feel fuller for longer and makes food release its energy more slowly.
Here’s a neat trick: added to beans and grain dishes, seaweed improves digestion. The enzymes in kombu helps pre-digest pulses and reduce wind.
The beauty of using seaweed is that they are readily available in the dried form, fairly inexpensive, and a little goes a long way.
They make a terrific standby and backup ingredient for flavouring. When you don’t have meat or bones to make a stock, whip out some dried seaweed from the pantry.
When you need a quick snack, toast some nori. My favourite treat is to deep-fry the black Chinese laver used for soup.
Apart from a stash of dried wakame and kombu in my pantry drawer, I keep a tiny jar of seaweed powder in the fridge for those instantaneous flavouring needs – think of it as the natural MSG, not the artificially synthesised, cheap white stuff.
Seaweed recipes are inherently easy. See this for yourself this Monday in the recipes by chef Jean-Michel Fraisse of the French Culinary School in Asia, originator of that mermaid salad cooking class.
Common seaweeds for your pantry
Seaweed or algae are categorised into red, green, brown and blue-green varieties. The commonly eaten varieties fall in the red and brown categories. Nori and laver are red algae; kombu and wakame are brown; green algae includes sea lettuce and sea grapes; and the blue-green algae, spirulina and chlorella. To start cooking with seaweed, stock these common dried algae in your pantry. They can be found at most supermarkets.
Nori was first a generic term for seaweed but has now come to mean the paper seaweed used for making sushi. It is made from the red laver Porphyra. To make nori, it is chopped or ground, then mixed with water into a slurry. This is poured into a mould over a woven mat. When the water drains away, you’re left with a thin layer of chopped seaweed which dries to form nori sheets.
Chinese black seaweed
The black seaweed (chi chai) used for making soups in Chinese kitchens comes in flat round cakes the size of dinner plates. They are made of the same type of seaweed as nori. The principal variety is Porphyra umbilicalis, a purplish red alga that boils down to a dark green pulp when prepared.
Kombu is a type of kelp sold in thick, wide strips. Colours may vary from dark green, brown-green to black-green. It is important to dashi making and valued for its savoury, umami taste. The strips are often covered with a white powder from natural salts. Just wipe with a damp cloth (do not wash) before soaking or cooking.
This is a convenient pack of an assortment of seaweeds in various colours and may include wakame, red laver and agar. Great for salads and as decorative topping.
Wakame or Undaria pinnatifida is a brown algae native to the Japan Sea but the invasive species has spread to other parts of the world. Wakame fronds are green and have a subtly sweet flavour and satiny texture. It is used in soups and salads. Rehydrate dried wakame by soaking. Store-bought wakame usually comes in small pieces and expands after soaking.
Agar or kanten is a gelatinous polysaccharide derived from red algae. It is a strong gelling agent and is used as a food thickener and in many Asian desserts such as puddings. Agar is a vegetarian substitute for animal gelatin, sold as clear, colourless strips or powder.