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Helpful Herbs: Seaweed

You may not think of Seaweed as a traditional "herb", but it is as helpful as they come! Seaweed grows in a huge variety of different shapes, colors, and sizes, and today I'll be talking mostly about brown algae or kelp which is the most commonly consumed type.

from Illustrarations Algarum, 1840

Of course, not everyone can grow Seaweed in their backyard. If you've got a bit of salt water front, though, it's easy to cultivate and harvest. Seaweed farming, the practice of growing Seaweed specifically for consumption, is very common in Asia and has become an increasingly popular profession along coastlines in America, including Maine's rocky shores.

Seedlings are planted about one meter underwater (low tide depth), and their rows are cleared of other sea plants. The seedlings are tied to thread that leads up to the surface of the ocean, so the farmer can easily pull the threads up from the ocean floor to harvest the Seaweed.

If you don't have oceanfront to grow your own Seaweed, many public places allow the responsible harvesting of naturally growing Seaweed. Check your local restrictions and, as with any wild plant, do not over harvest. Brown algae includes the large, flat, brown sheets of rubbery seaweed you might find waving in the shallows, commonly referred to as sea belt or Devil's apron and scientifically known as saccharina latissima. Another common brown algae is fucus vesculosus, often seen on the Maine coastline and frequently called bladderwrack. These are the waving, thinner leaves marked with bulbous, gas filled pockets.

Most Seaweeds are safe to consume raw, but for storing and using in recipes they are often dried. Seaweeds can be hung on ropes in the sun to dry out, similar to drying laundry. Full sunlight will help your Seaweed dry out quickly and once the "leaves" are crispy you can store them in dry, air tight containers.

There are several ways to cook with Seaweed. You can try the dried leaves by themselves for a healthy snack, and also sprinkle them over a salad or pasta. Seaweed is sometimes used in place of dill leaves in pickling cucumbers, and the dried crumbs of Seaweed leaves can be used to flavor salt. Not surprisingly, Seaweed often compliments fish dishes and can be used in seasoning chicken as well. Of course the most common culinary use for Seaweed is in wrapping sushi rolls (using nori, a type of red seaweed), but you can also make a compound butter using dried Seaweed.

Why should you eat Seaweed? It's completely packed with healthy benefits. A wonderful source for antioxidants, calcium, vitamins, and most of all - iodine. Iodine is critical to a healthy thyroid, which is the gland that helps us regulate our hormones. Iodine is not common in a lot of foods and iodine deficiency, leading to thyroid issues, is a common modern day health problem. Seaweed's high levels of iodine help to keep your body in balance. Studies have also shown it may help in preventing breast cancer, limiting the symptoms of PMS, and preventing inflammation diseases such as arthritis.

Part of our oceans for millennia, Seaweed has been harvested for human consumption for at least 20,000 years. That is long before civilizations in the Euphrates began to cultivate grains. Part of everyday cooking in Japan for thousands of years, Seaweed wasn't just harvested in the Far East. In Ireland, Seaweed was used as a fertilizer for soil and dried to include in a mixture to make bread. Dried Seaweed was a common snack in Ancient Iceland, where growing crops in the ground was impossible for half of the year.

In Hawaii, brown algea was prized for its restorative properties and when Captain Cook visited the islands in 1777 he was offered the plant to help restore his strength. Not only was Seaweed used in Japanese cuisine, but laws put down around 700 AD proclaimed that the citizens of Japan would pay their taxes to the Emperor in kelp.

This only touches on the many historical and modern day uses of Seaweed both for cooking and health. A vast ocean floor of opportunities awaits, and it is easy to start expanding your own diet and health with this salty superfood.


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