Guest Contribution by Mary Weir.
What first comes to mind when you think of seaweed? A slimy plant that startles you while swimming at the beach? Fertilizer for your garden? Or… dinner? Yes, that’s right, dinner, or at least a snack!
Seaweed has been eaten all over the world, most popularly in Asian cultures, but it is making its way into the hearts, homes, and bellies of Atlantic Canadians too. With many edible seaweed species growing right along our coastline, it is a surprise it isn’t being used more.
This summer I am working as a research assistant at St. Francis Xavier University in the Human Nutrition Department. I’ve been helping to look into the potential of local seaweed as a human food source. I am most interested in the use of seaweed as food. We collected four species of seaweed from along the coast of Nova Scotia to study their potential as a functional food and important local food resource. We used both a laboratory approach to measure nutrient composition and antioxidant activity and a sociocultural exploration of the uses of seaweed in Nova Scotia.
Seaweed grows mainly in the ocean’s intertidal zone. It can be collected in boats or from along the beach after a storm has washed it ashore. Once collected, it is rinsed in water to remove any debris and then laid out on rocks on the shore to dry. From my interviews, some people even take it home and hang it on their clothes line to dry!
People have been making use of seaweed for centuries, as fertilizer for crops and gardens, as insulation for houses, and even as medicine. There are also modest commercial fisheries for several species of seaweed in Nova Scotia, including Chondrus crispus, also known as Irish moss. Altogether, however, for such an abundant resource, seaweeds have not typically been exploited on a large scale.
Locally, seaweed use has a vast history from a variety of people in Nova Scotia, including the Celtics, Acadians and Mi’kmaq. Seaweeds were often relied upon during times of hardship, such as poverty and times of war, when people were forced to seek alternative resources. Various seaweeds were used fresh as a vegetable substitute on their own or put into soups and salads. They were also dried and used as a snack for chewing and cooked into breads or boiled with milk and fruits to make jellies and desserts. Coastal Aboriginal communities also harvested and dried seaweed to use as a trading item with more inland communities.
The first way that many people think of eating seaweed is as part of a sushi roll. What many Atlantic Canadians may not realize, is that Nori- also known as Laver- actually grows along the coast of Nova Scotia!
From the interviews I have conducted so far, Nova Scotians are most familiar with eating the seaweed known as dulse. When asked what dulse tastes like the answer is always hard to describe. Many answered with a slight hesitation to put their fingers on the right words to describe the flavour. The unanimous response is simply, ”like the sea!” Enjoyed dried, it is crunchy and is snacked on like chips or popcorn and is often compared to jerky. It can also be eaten fresh in soups as a salt substitute and to add a salty, mineral-like flavour.
One of the most traditional food uses of seaweed that I have found is laver bread. The laver is harvested from the sea and washed in fresh water to remove any sand and is then steeped in fresh water for three to four hours. It is then boiled gently until the seaweed is tender. Once tender it is drained and beaten into a pulp. The pulp is then mixed with oatmeal and fried in fat to make the cake known as Laver bread. It is eaten as a breakfast dish paired with bacon or spread on toast.
Seaweeds are notable for having higher mineral content than land vegetables. They have antioxidant properties, and are rich in vitamins, and dietary fibre. As more attention is brought to the connection between our diet, healthy living and disease prevention- along with the use of sustainable, local foods- seaweed is becoming more popular than ever. Chefs are beginning to use seaweed in dishes to add a unique, local flavour. Some restaurants are using crispy dulse to make a DLC (dulse, lettuce and tomato sandwich).
While researching this topic I have found that there isn’t a lot of documented literature. But it is has been so interesting hearing stories of people’s personal seaweed experiences. So if you have any stories, memories, or recipes related to our local seaweeds, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your knowledge!
Mary Weir is from Antigonish, Nova Scotia and is heading into her third year at St. Francis Xavier University in the Human Nutrition program. She worked as a research assistant for two professors in the department this summer.