It’s a classic case of don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
Seaweed may sound like a slimy snack to many, but with an open enough mind, you may find it tastes anything but gross.
And for those out there with slightly slimmer snack repertoires, we have some good news: There’s actually a number of different kinds of edible seaweed – so you’ll have plenty of chances to experiment with the ingredient. (Or at least find out you really, really don’t like it!)
Under(standing) The Sea
You may recognize seaweed as a side-dish from your favorite Asian restaurant.
The salty snack has been enjoyed in China, Japan and Korea since time immemorial, thanks in part, we can only assume, to its sheer accessibility. (Seaweed just isn’t quite as good of a swimmer as, say, that bluefin tuna you wanted for dinner.)
But while the Asian recipes may be the most famous, seaweed has also been traditionally harvested everywhere from Australia and New Zealand to Iceland, Norway and France.
Basically, if there was a sea nearby, there was probably a prehistoric human using it for all their seaweed needs.
But digging into a bowlful of seaweed isn’t just not-that-weird, it’s also weirdly good for us, with the seastuff boasting everything from iodine to polysaccharides to vitamin B12.
So whether they’re in your salad, soup or wrapped around your sushi, these different types of edible seaweed are sure to make everyone happy, from your body and belly to your ancient ancestors!
As it turns out, it’s not just for otters.
Kelp may be the staple of those sea mammals’ diets, but it’s just as popular out here on dry land, partly because kelp is one of the most easily accessible kinds of edible seaweed.
Technically the catchier name for Phaeophyceae, a catch-all class of brown algae that includes a number of seaweed types, kelp tends to grow in the cold northern waters that surround most of Asia and all of Europe, making it the de facto type of seaweed used in many classic recipes in those regions.
And once kelp gets going, they can really grow, sprouting up underwater in huge fields that are known as kelp forests.
On the edible front, kelp can be served in any number of ways, though it’s most typically dried out first and served in strips, or even ground into a powder and used as a spice. But rehydrating the sea plant is also a popular option for a number of soups. Add in some seafood and it’s like taking a bite of the ocean!
Another type of brown algae, or kelp, Kombu is especially popular in Japan, where it serves an important role in a number of staple Japanese dishes.
When boiled together with water and bonito (or skipjack tuna) flakes, the sea vegetable makes the broth dashi, a bedrock of Japanese cooking responsible for giving everything from miso soup to ramen noodles that very je ne sais quoi type of taste.
But kombu also gets some of its own time in the spotlight in its native Japan, where it’s sometimes prepared by being softened in hot water and served, traditionally, with rice wine and soy sauce.
Still, if you’re a fan of fermented drinks, you might want to be wary of any Japanese tea called kombucha – it’s probably not the bubbly old tea you’re used to, but dried up kombu steeped in hot water.
If you’ve ever had sushi, you’ve likely had Nori, arguably the most popular – and mildest – type of edible seaweed.
Nori is almost always dried out or roasted when eaten by humans, before being pressed into razor-thin strips in a process that’s not unlike papermaking. The strips are then often used to roll up sushi, though they’re increasingly being enjoyed by themselves as a popular snack in the U.S.
Elsewhere in the world, Nori is added to a special soup served in Korea to commemorate birthday celebrations, and in Japan, it’s frequently ground into a spice that’s added to everything from pancakes to noodles.
Meanwhile at the sushi place, you may have spotted something on the menu called Wakame.
It’s another type of edible seaweed, though different from Nori in nearly every way.
Wakame is on the sweeter side of the spectrum, with its deep-green leaves often cut into thin strips that bear a silky—or, sometimes, when it’s overcooked—slimy texture.
Also known as sea mustard, this sea vegetable is so tasty, it’s frequently served as seaweed salad, accompanied only by the minimal flourishes of sesame oil, sesame seeds and some lettuce.
But many traditional Japanese and Korean recipes also call for Wakame to be added to soup – whether as a green garnish floating on top or as part of the broth itself, working its seaweedy magic in spice form.
Over in the Atlantic – and Northwest Pacific – a type of kelp called Dulse can be easily found clinging to rocks in the cold northern waters.
Outside of the ocean, this brown algae, which actually takes on more of a reddish color, sports a texture some describe as soft but leathery and a taste many swear is the closest plant-based thing to bacon.
As such, Dulse is used in a number of savory ways, added – typically in flake form – to everything from soups to chips to meat seasonings or sautéed on its own with butter, garlic and herbs.
And in Ireland, one of the first places where Dulse was harvested, the sea vegetable has also become the secret ingredient in the island’s famous soda bread. That basically makes a hardy loaf of the stuff a salad, right?
Its name may not exactly sound appealing, but its taste is a whole other story.
This type of edible seaweed (which grows on the Atlantic shorelines of North America, Europe, and – surprise! – also Ireland) is a standout in the sea vegetable world, as a go-to ingredient for many desserts.
It’s the plant’s high quantity of carrageen – a type of sugar molecule – that makes it an unexpected star of dishes like tapioca and ice cream. But its beautiful purple-red color and mesmerizing shape, which resembles a tiny tree, make this type of seaweed just as much a feast for the eyes.
So the next time you’re by the sea, you can try a whole new form of weed whacking by scarfing down some of these tasty exotic dishes.