And its story doesn’t end here. The mysterious wakame leads a second life: one in the kitchen, where it has played an incredible role in cooking traditions going back hundreds of years. Wakame and other seaweeds are essential ingredients in dashi, the Japanese stock which forms the basis of many of that nation’s favourite soups and stews. It was seaweed that led researchers to discover the so-called “fifth taste,” umami, which has since been found in many other foods like Parmesan cheese and cured meats.
This post is the first in a series about edible seaweeds. I’ll let you know what I’ve learned from my recent adventures out to the frozen beaches of Newfoundland in search of sea vegetables - and what I’ve done with them back at home to prepare them as ingredients for food.
A better place to collect sea vegetables?
If there’s a better place to collect sea vegetables, I’d like to know where it is. The island of Newfoundland is a coastal world, surrounded on all sides by nutrient rich water that abounds with sea life. The extent of the island's shoreline is enormous. As Canadiana folk historian Farley Mowat once pointed out, "[Newfoundland] is so slashed and convoluted with bays, inlets, runs and fjords that they present more than five thousand miles of shorelines to the open Atlantic.” And as Newfoundland author Wayne Johnston commented in his seminal work about the island, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, “virtually the whole population lives on the coast, as if ready to abandon ship at a moment's notice.” So it seems that Newfoundlanders and sea vegetables alike have a profound affinity for the rugged shoreline, with the only divide between their two worlds being the high tide mark.
Amazingly, the first ever book published about seaweeds in all of North America was based on account of collections made in Newfoundland. The year was 1816 and the famous French explorer and naturalist Jean Bachelot La Pylaie completed his work after several return visits to the island. But what’s even more astonishing is that it took almost 150 years for the next account of seaweeds to be made in Newfoundland. And buried in the stacks of the Queen Elizabeth II library I managed to find it (or least the only non-academic version of it): Common Seaweeds of Newfoundland: A Guide for the Layman. It's a concise, illustrated booklet written by Graham South and published in 1975 by Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Marine Sciences Research Laboratory. It has been check out once: by me.
Heroes in the seaweed
The very next weekend, early one February morning, I found myself barreling down the Southern Shore highway toward Ferryland in search of sea veggies. I had timed the trip to coincide with a spring tide - the lowest tides of the month which occur during new or full moons. Two friends had come along for the adventure. Alvan was looking forward to collecting some mussels on the tidal flats and observing the shorebird activity. Sarah had accepted my invitation at the eleventh hour, apparently undeterred by the temperature dipping below minus 10 with the wind chill and with our complete lack of experience in collecting mussels and seaweeds. I handed her a copy of my field guide / renegade cookbook, Extreme Greens by Sally McKenna, which only seemed to strengthen her resolve that I was, in fact, totally nuts.
Atlantic Wakame (Alaria esculenta)
Tips on collecting your own wakame sea vegetables
To be continued...
So far, I’m only scraping the surface of the incredible world of edible seaweeds, or sea vegetables. The more I learn the more I’m amazed at what I discover - and when I look out at the ocean (visible from at least one window in my new Georgetown apartment) I am awestruck at the potential of harvesting wild Newfoundland sea vegetables. The possibilities are endless. And that’s why I consider this post Part 1 in a series dedicated to the fascinating world of sea vegetables. Stay tuned!
And happy collecting :)
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.