The waters around Vancouver Island are home to 32 kinds of kelp and more varieties of seaplants and seaweed than anywhere else on the planet. I talk to scientists about harvesting these nutritious plants.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Sea vegetables are among the most nutritious plants on earth – and we are literally swimming in the stuff. Go out to almost any island beach at low tide and you’ll see electric green sea lettuce and dark purple laver clinging to the rocks, fronds of frilly brown alaria (a.k.a. wakame), and salty sea asparagus at the high water line. Vast forests of kelp shelter small fish and other ocean life just off shore, and their wide flat blades and bulbous floats are often found washed up on the sand after a storm. For the uninitiated, it can all seem like little more than a tangle of salty flotsam to navigate around on your beach walk. But for experts like marine biologist Amanda Swinimer, it’s a tasty and healthy harvest. “We have 650 species of seaweed on our coasts,” she says, “and 32 types of kelp, the most diversity on the planet.” AN OCTOPUS’S GARDEN “This is rockweed, the dandelion of the sea,” says Swinimer, clipping off the forked sacs from the mats of leafy bladderrack in the intertidal zone where we’re standing. “It’s prolific and loaded with sodium alginate, a substance that draws toxins and heavy metals from the body.” It’s also delicious, she says, simply sautéed with a little ginger and tamari, just until the pouches turn from khaki brown to bright green. We’ve come to the rocky end of Muir Creek Beach near Sooke, one of the spots where Swinimer forages for a variety of wild sea vegetables for her line of Dakini Tidal Wilds products that you’ll find at local groceries and health food stores. The bags of hand-harvested and dried winged kelp (wild wakame), sea kelp, laminaria (kombu), and the kelp that’s mixed with citrusy spruce tips and wild mint in her Land and Sea Tea, are all foraged in the cold, clean waters north of Sooke. Swinimer also offers educational seaweed workshops and guided snorkel tours through the magical Pacific Northwest Kelp Forest – a way to observe the undulating “tidal dance of massive kelps and myriad of creatures that make this underwater jungle their home.” “They are the forests of the ocean,” she says, “home to thousands of fish and crab – I even saw a couple of octopus last season.” An estimated 650,000 tonnes of wild kelp grows along the province’s coast, with bull kelp being the fastest growing seaweed on earth, growing from a tiny spore to a 61-metre plant in a single summer.
SEAWEED TRADITIONS Various cultures have traditionally consumed seaweed, from China, Japan, Iceland and Norway to Ireland, Wales and Nova Scotia. While creative west coast chefs have been incorporating seaweed into their cooking for some time, most Canadians aren’t really familiar with eating sea vegetables at home. But all that’s changing as more people learn more about the health benefits of this wild food. Seaweed provides a wealth of nutrients, from natural vitamins A, B, C and E to potassium, zinc, iron, iodine, high levels of fibre, and, of course, the elusive fifth flavour, savoury umami. “They all have very different textures and taste different but they all have the umami,” says Swinimer. “Seawood is the epitome of that flavour.” Which is another reason it’s long been a flavouring agent in traditional Japanese cuisine. “Cooking with seaweed is such a natural thing for me,” says Takashi Ito, executive chef at The Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria. “I grew up in Sendai, in the Miyagi prefecture in Japan, where both oysters and seaweed are all around.” Traditional Japanese cooking incorporates seaweed – from wakame in the dashi broth for miso soup to the sheets of nori used to roll rice for maki sushi, or the toasted seaweed sprinkled over cold soba noodle salad. But in Ito’s kitchen, seaweed morphs into a variety of dishes, from his deep fried, deconstructed sushi with sesame seaweed salad, to the tender, brioche-like rolls in the bread basket, crackled with a savoury powdered Ao Nori and sesame topping. “In Japan, we make wakame or seafood ramen, and use kombu with rice or noodles,” says Ito, “I like julienned kombu, quickly braised with soy sauce and sugar, or sauteed in butter with a little smoked bacon and a touch of soy.” Coastal First Nations knew about the benefits of consuming seaweed, too, layering the spring harvest of protein-rich black laver or nori (porphyra) with oolican grease to preserve it, and using the heavy stipes of bull kelp to weave baskets for food vessels and storage. HIP HEALTH FOOD Seaweed has landed on several recent Top Ten trend lists – some are even calling “kelp the new kale” - so it’s not surprising that it’s turning up on local menus. At Wolf in the Fog in Tofino, chef Nick Nutting makes a popular seaweed salad that includes slivers of shredded bull kelp with crispy popped wild rice, daikon radish and sautéed shiitake mushrooms. At Wheelies Motorcycles café in Victoria, the sesame ginger Chicken Sandwich comes with a side of gochujang seaweed slaw. And Be Love combines raw kale with seaweed and “dulse Parmesan” in its Caesar salad. At Wild Mountain Food & Drink in Sooke, seaweed is just part of the wild, local pantry for chef Oliver Kienast’s creations. The menu in this comfortable space changes frequently, with seasonal harvests, but on a recent visit the fat steamed clams came in an umami-rich halibut broth with slivers of kelp and foraged Japanese knotweed. “I like things to intersect, for flavours to live together,” says Kienest, describing another favourite combination of raw oysters with sea asparagus that’s been quickly pickled in carrot pickle brine, and a dusting of powdered sea lettuce. “Shellfish with sea vegetables strikes a chord, people kind of get it.” Kienast says it makes sense to cook with seaweed here. Not only is it plentiful and easily foraged around the island, “we have a great Japanese culture on the west coast” and a tradition of cooking with sea vegetables. He buys local Dakini winged kelp and bull kelp, and forages his own sea lettuce, using kombu to add a hit of umami to his bone broths or to “jump start” the kimchi he ferments. “We spend a lot of time promoting local food,” he says. “If I can pick it the same day, I get tastier food, and I can have a conversation with my community,” he says. “Seaweed gives a dish a briny richness, and a little bitterness, and the sea beans (asparagus) have an amazing texture,” he adds, “they pop.” Look around and you’ll see healthy seaweed in local products. At the Cowichan Pasta Company Matt Horn has added Dakini Wild’s wakame to his stone-ground spaghetti and at Silk Road Tea, there’s seaweed and lemongrass in the minty Mermaid’s Potion herbal tea. You’ll find seaweed in other beverages, too, from the briny Kelp Stout from Tofino Brewing, to Sheringham Distillery’s Seaside Gin, infused with Alaria marginata. “I think it gives it a briny ocean feel and a touch of richness, or umami,” says distiller Jason MacIsaac, a former chef who flavours his gin with wild botanicals, from juniper and wild rose petals to local lavender and Dakini’s winged kelp, foraged from the ocean next door. “I’ve been surfing here for 25 years and in the fall the kelp beds clean the waves, just grooms it out,” he adds. “I like that idea of kelp polishing the wave out, making the surfing so clean, like the gin. We say ‘it’s clean as a south island surf’.”
GETTING THE GOODS Summer is “seaweed season” on Vancouver Island, anytime between May and September is the perfect time to learn how to harvest and cook sea vegetables. You need a license to harvest seaweed commercially, but individuals are free to forage for sea plants at low tide. Swinimer says there’s an hour or so on each side of the low tide for harvesting the seaweed anchored to the rocks. Bright green sea lettuce may be found floating in tidal pools while black nori (laver) will be slicked down over beach rocks and should be cut with a knife or clipped with scissors. “Just give it a haircut,” says Swinimer, slicing off the top of large, bronze-coloured kelp, leaving the hold-fast base attached to the rocks. Rinse each piece of seaweed well in the ocean as you harvest, and put it in a bucket of sea water, she says. The smooth blades of iridescent rainbow kelp (iridaea cordata) are deep purple with flashes of blue, the wavy wakame olive green to brown, the dark green giant bull kelp dark green more than 10 feet long. “Kelp grows 100 feet in six months,” she adds, noting the plant has no roots, but rather a structure at its base that anchors it in place, and will live up to 25 years if properly hand harvested. Look for a beach with a variety of sea plants, she says. Too much sea lettuce can mean excess levels of “nutrients”, like the kind found around a sewage outfall in the city, and should be avoided. Once harvested and washed, seaweed can be dried on screens or hung from cedar racks. Nori and sea lettuce will be dry in 8 hours, says Swinimer, who has been harvesting here for 15 years, while kelp and wakame can take 2-3 days to dry.
SEAWEED IN THE KITCHEN Crunched as a salty snack or rehydrated in water to add to soups and sauces, it’s fast and easy to add seaweed to the menu. Seaweed doesn’t have a lot of flavour, but there’s definitely a unique texture to these sea vegetables. A little goes along way. Dry seaweed swells to about four times its size when soaked. To get the most flavour from your seaweed – even sheets of nori for sushi – make sure to toast it first by heating it in a dry pan or holding it, with tongs, over an open flame. Local chef and author Bill Jones offers lots of information about seaweed in his book, The Deerholme Farm Foraging Book (TouchWood Editions, 2014), along with recipes for several seaweed dishes, from stir-fried crab with spicy seaweed sauce to seaweed pesto, seaweed béchamel and Thai flavoured spot prawn and seaweed bisque. Jones also makes an Asian seaweed sauce – a puree of boiled fresh or dried seaweed seasoned with miso, soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil – that he says can be frozen to add to stir-fries and chowder, or served with poached halibut. To make seaweed powder, just grind dried kelp in a spice grinder and store in a glass jar. Jones uses seaweed powder in several recipes, from béchamel sauce to pasta. I think it makes a great salty addition to buttered popcorn, rice or breakfast eggs. You can buy dried nori, wakame and kombu in local Japanese and Korean markets. Look for packaged seaweed with good colour and aroma. The thinnest, most delicate nori is the finest. Some Korean nori products are flavoured with sesame oil or wasabi for snacking. You can also buy locally-harvested seaweed from Dakini Wild and Bamfield’s Canadian Kelp Resources at stores like Market on Yates and Lifestyles Market, where Swinimer’s dried kelp is sold both packaged and in the bulk bins.
A HEALTHY SNACK You don’t need to eat a lot of seaweed to reap the health benefits – just about 5-15g of dried seaweed or a few sushi rolls a week. As seaweed is naturally adapted to drying out in the sun when the tide is low, then rehydrating as the tide comes in, it’s considered a “live food” whether fresh or dried. A single sheet of nori has less than 20 calories and no fat, but about 300 mg of sodium. High in iron, iodine, fibre, protein and B vitamins, kelp is antibacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal, says Swinimer. But kelp can also concentrate heavy metals so must be harvested in pristine waters. Canadian supplies are tested regularly, says Swinimer.