Twelve years ago, during an extended layover in Seoul, Korea, I discovered the ancestors of the packaged seaweed snacks that kids have in their lunchboxes.
In the duty-free shopping zone, I wandered into a seaweed shop. The store was stocked, floor to ceiling, with colorful boxes and shiny packets of seaweed in myriad varieties and various flavors. Although I couldn’t understand a word that was said to me by the sales staff,
the diversity and nuance of the offerings, and paramount importance of seaweed, were evident, and I ended up spending my last won on a few boxes of toasted nori packs: sesame, wasabi, kimchi, soy and salted. They were extraordinary, transitioning seamlessly from crunchy to dissolved flavor in my mouth.
If only the rest of the planet shared the respect and reverence for seaweed that they have in the far northeast of Asia, the world would probably be a happier, healthier place.
Seaweed can be found anywhere there is ocean coastline, and, seaweed fan that I am, I’m always curious to try the regional varieties. Locally, Strong Arm Farm sources seaweed from the Sonoma County coast. Of the 3,500 or so species of seaweed, none is known to be poisonous, though some are less edible than others. It can be tough. It can be slimy. It needs to be prepared correctly.
The plant-like algae requires no land or fertilization, grows fast, and is awash with trace elements, minerals, vitamins and other useful materials, like the soluble fiber alginate, which is thought to stop the body’s absorption of fat from food. (British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently credited his 30-pound weight loss to seaweed.) And, since seaweed contains up to 40 percent protein, by dry weight, it’s one of the best plant-based protein sources on earth.
A recent piece by Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker detailed the vast promise of seaweed as an abundant and eco-friendly food. Goodyear finds herself really wanting to like seaweed, but can only eat it in small doses. Alas, she is not alone.
The New Yorker story notes several people, a cook, a scientist and an entrepreneur, who are in a race for what’s become a holy grail in the seaweed community: making it taste like bacon. Many of these optimists believe they are close, or have already achieved this lofty goal, though Goodyear respectfully disagrees.
One of the reasons some seaweeds can be made to taste vaguely bacon-like has to do with the umami taste that bacon and seaweed both possess in abundance. Umami, recently declared an official taste, refers to the meaty, savory flavor of the amino acid glutamate. The flavor of glutamate was first discovered by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who then proceeded to isolate glutamate from kelp and ended up with a white powder that today is widely known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Although there probably never will be a seaweed product that can truly be mistaken for bacon, seaweed can nonetheless serve as a surprisingly effective substitute. I would know, because when my kids clamor for bacon for breakfast, it is not good to be out of it. Offers to substitute broccoli or kale are not entertained, but at the suggestion of seaweed eggs, the morning harmony is restored. Like bacon, seaweed makes the dish feel complete.