Will Swim For Food
Sea vegetables, like seaweed and sea beans, add flavor and texture to dishes
You don't need to dive 20,000 leagues under the sea to find interesting new vegetables to use in your kitchen. Some sit just below the water's surface while others linger near the water's edge. Or just pop by your local Asian market. Sea vegetables, which technically fall into the algae category, are often used in Japanese cooking, but are being used in other cuisines to add flavor and texture to many dishes.
Packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, seaweed might be the most common sea vegetable. And it comes in many varieties like nori, kombu, wakame and arame. Some offer a strong taste of the sea with high salinity, while some lean sweeter.
You can also get playful with other sea vegetables like sea lettuce, sea grapes, dulse and sugar kelp. Many chefs enjoy working with sea beans, a crunchy, salty stalk-like plant – also sometimes referred to as sea asparagus – that grows along the seashore.
“I love sea beans, they’re the capers of the sea,” exclaims Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of the vegetable-focused Dirt Candy in New York. “They’re already pickled and salty, have this hollow crunch and elevate any dish naturally.”
Cohen enjoys raw sea beans, but thinks frying them takes them to another level. While the outside gets nice and crispy, the inside offers a great salty flavor. “It’s like a deep fried pickle, but it’s not wet,” she describes.
Jesse Houston, executive chef of Fine & Dandy in Jackson, Miss., uses sea beans raw to highlight a fish dish or pickles them to use as a garnish. He also toasts and grinds nori into a powder to use as a base umami flavor to amplify a dish or uses it to make a bright vinaigrette to dress greens and other vegetables.
Chefs often use one of the many seaweeds to add depth, texture and flavor to a variety of dishes. At Philadelphia’s lauded vegan restaurant, Vedge, chef/co-owner Richard Landau combines sheets of kombu, with its ocean saltiness, with shiitake mushrooms to create the base for his dashi, a Japanese broth, in a number of sauces. And at his more casual vegan street food spot, V Street, he gives a traditional Italian cacio e pepe a Japanese bent by including miso butter and pickled ginger into the dish before topping it with nori powder for some intensity.
“Seaweed can add this subtle layer somewhere in the middle of a dish,” Landau explains. "Once it’s there, you won’t know how you lived without it.”
You can even incorporate sea vegetables into cocktails to add natural salinity. Phil Esteban, research and development chef for CH Projects in San Diego, which currently has nine restaurants including Ironside and Underbelly, says they use sea vegetable oils and sprays to impart different flavors.
“They add more of an umami flavor versus anything astringent,” Esteban says. “It adds mouthfeel or viscosity to a drink.”
However you use sea vegetables, experiment, but be sure to not to use too much.
You have to find the balance where that doesn’t become the only flavor,” Cohen insists.