Diving can be more fun than ever if you learn something about seaweeds. You can take home, free, the most delicious, nutritious vegetables in the world. Although you can use seaweeds newly washed up on the beach, divers can get the pick of the lot – giving them greater variety, flavor and nutrients.
You may even get interested enough to want to become involved in aquaculture after eating seaweed. Divers will be hired as new sea farming projects gain momentum in Hawaii, Washington, California and in other countries. The seaweed authority. Valentine Chapman, hails them as a food of the future. He wrote, “One could indeed develop a very strong case for the use of compressed seaweed packets for consumption in any space journey of the future.’
All of us have been eating seaweeds for years in our processed foods. That smooth texture of ice cream, salad dressings, chocolate milk, etc. comes mainly from the alginates extracted from the big forests of Macrocystis off the California coast. Other chemicals from seaweeds keep that fine head on your beer, meringue up high in readymade pies and stop mixtures from separating. The U.S. uses such tremendous amounts of chemicals from seaweeds as suspending, stabilizing and emulsifying agents that we have even been going overseas for supplies. Marine algae are truly super plants.
But, we have ignored them as a direct food, although for centuries they have been an important part of the diet in the Far East. Japanese women credit the blackness of their hair and trim figures to sea vegetables. Pacific peoples make them a part of special holiday foods and pay high prices to get them. In past years those living in Ireland, Scotland, England, Maine, Nova Scotia and the natives of our Northwest unknowingly got much of their vitamin C (besides many others) from this source.
Why not try them yourself? Use them fresh – raw and crispy – in salads or freshly cut up in whatever you are cooking. Just add to the pot of stew, spaghetti or pizza sauce. Use them dried and ground up as a flavoring in anything calling for salt; as flakes in high energy candy; in popcorn or biscuits. Let your imagination run wild – seaweed adds the vitamins, minerals and bulk so necessary for busy people today. And hurray – its carbohydrates can’t be used by the human body so it’s non-fattening.
You will need two things, a knife and a bag of some sort. An old laundry bag, mesh fruit or vegetable bag or one you use for your spearfishing will keep your collection fresh. If you are going to collect a lot of the heavier kinds, you may want to tie the full bags to empty plastic milk or bleach bottles and float them until you come back to pick them up. I like to rinse my seaweeds thoroughly in the sea before taking them home to the refrigerator, to dry outside or in the utility room.
Before starting out it will help you to know only two seaweeds are questionable. One is a very thin hair-like species which grows in the warmer waters on the roots of mangrove trees. The other, a brown Desmarestia, grows in deeper waters. It contains a dilute sulphuric acid giving it an unpleasant lemon-like taste which would probably cause an upset stomach if eaten in quantity. It bleaches other seaweeds touching it.
The classification of seaweeds by color can be confusing. A red can look brown, browns seem more a dark olive green and many are nearly black when exposed to the air during tide changes. Sea vegetables, like their land cousins, are distinctive in texture, taste, seasonal variation, chemistry and preferred locations. Some kinds can be found on almost any coast. The type of seashore, the amount of light, temperature, salinity, roughness of the water and the depth determine which ones live in each place. The big brown algae (kelp) grow along the colder, rocky shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific. From Long Island to North Carolina the quieter sandier coasts favor greens. Farther south the warmer waters cause a shift to the reds. The Gulf of Mexico has the least algae growth. The Pacific side of the Gulf of California is rich in sea vegetables. From Mexico to Point Conception huge beds of Macrocystis dominate the scene though many others do well. As the waters become colder and the shores more rocky, the Monterey Bay area promotes the growth of nearly every kind of sea vegetable known to the Pacific Coast, making it an ideal spot.
Most sea vegetable fans put brown algae at the top of the list because of their versatility, high vitamin and mineral content and flavor. The many different kinds can be used interchangeably in most recipes so you can almost always find one handy. You will probably find a favorite. Mine is any of the Alarias – sometimes sold under the Japanese name wakame. In Western cultures they are called honeyware, kinged kelp and bladder lochs. By any name their delicate taste and tenderness lend themselves to an endless number of food uses.
Alarias growing in the lower intertidal zone on both moderate and exposed coasts become more plentiful as you travel north. Their long (4-20 feet) olive green to rich brown main blade arises from a short stipe which flattens into a thick midrib. Mature plants will have several rows of short, thick blades between the holdfast and the main blade. Although these are good to eat, plants should be cut between these and the main blade to ensure the regrowth of these perennials.
Many divers are familiar with Nereocystis, the giant sea kelp or bull whip, which grows up to 120 feet in one year. The long hollow stipe and float make delicious pickles. The blades can be used fresh or dried.
Macrocystis (sea kelp or sea ivy) can be 90 feet long in the more sheltered areas of the open sea from Alaska to California. The yellow brown, wrinkled looking blades, about 12 inches long, have tooth-like projections on their edges. The rounded bases of the blades arise directly from small floats which bring the blades to or near the surface. Divers should cut the plants well above the smooth reproductive blades at the base.
Many people buy Macrocystis in the form of kelp powder, flakes or tablets at health food stores as a salt substitute or for its vitamin content (E, A, B, D, C, iodine and all the trace elements like most of the others). Divers can dry and grind it or any of the sea vegetables, to use on any food as salt, in bloody Marys, etc. Some athletes claim it prevents muscle cramps and provides energy. I like any of the dried sea vegetables just for nibbling any time at home, but you can nibble on them fresh at the beach, too. Add freshly cut up Macrocystis to any of your recipes using vegetables.
The sea palm, Postelsia, looks like a three foot palm tree growing on the rough coast along with barnacles and mussels. Like Nereocystis, when sliced, its hollow stipe makes fine pickles or is especially delicious just steamed. The Japanese serve it with lemon juice and soy sauce, but try it with your favorite seasoning.
The 5-10 foot Sargassum somewhat resembles Macrocystis but has inch long blades with a number of smaller floats. It grows in warmer, quieter, waters. Although thick, the blades are tender.
Knowing about two red sea vegetables adds to a diver’s menu and appreciation of the variety of marine algae. Many of you have already sampled sushi in its thin black nori wrapper. It is made from pressing a one or two cell thick layer species of Porphyra which is intensely cultivated in Japan. When wet, hanging from the rocks, these lock like a sort of steel gray to purple leaf. As most grow where they are exposed to the air for a time each day, they may stick to the rocks like black, rubbery sheets or may even be brittle. Pick them, let them dry till brittle for soups, etc. If you get them wet, spread them flat to dry. Toast them carefully for just a second or two before using them to make your own sushi with fish you catch.
Several varieties of Gracilaria resemble soft, reddish brown, nylon fishing line about 8-12 inches long. They grow on rocks or small stones on sandy beaches between high and low tide lines in quiet, warmer waters. Sparsely branched, with a pleasant fragrance and crisp, cartilagenous texture, they bring a good price in the markets of Honolulu and other Pacific cities. Chopped up raw, the young tender ones are great in any vegetable salad. I like to use them like lettuce in sandwiches for a cool, crispy flavor. Because of its high quality agar, it has many other uses.