Luxurious in taste, affordable in price. That’s the way John Sugimura describes sea vegetables, a longtime Asian staple that are slowly gaining acceptance in Western dining. “New foods need to have ‘curb appeal,’ and the fresh flavor of sea vegetables not only makes them appealing, but correlates them with health in diners’ minds,” says the creative managing partner at PinKU, a new Japanese street food restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis.
Sea vegetables are any type of edible seaweed, or marine algae, which are harvested from the world’s oceans. The most common variety is nori, those deep green sheets used to wrap sushi rolls. Other common varieties include arame, kombu, dulse, sea broccoli and wakame. Sea vegetables are naturally low in calories, rich in dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, fucuidan, essential amino acids and vitamins A, B, C, and E. No wonder they’re sometimes called “marine medicinal food.”
Sugimura says that adding sea vegetables gives dishes a richness that allows diners to make smarter, and tastier, food choices. “I’ve eliminated 95 percent of added fat in my diet by adding sea vegetables,” he says.” You’ll never want to add Gouda to a dish when you can add them instead.”
He offers some quick tips for operators who are interested in trying sea vegetables on their menus. “My rule of thumb is to always buy Japanese products, which tend to be higher in quality and more consistent,” he says. “If you’re just getting started, buy small portions and store them frozen in Ziploc bags.”
What are some of his favorites? “Sea broccoli is like having fresh produce that comes right out of the ocean,” he says. “Sauté it and use it as a garnish or topping.” Another favorite addition is dashi kombu. “I always add it to the water of anything I’m going to boil. If I make egg noodles, it takes the edge off the starch and makes the noodles so delicious they don’t need butter.” Another standby: “Powdered nori in a shaker is my secret weapon,” he says.
“Whenever people tell me they’d like to know more, I ask: ‘Do you want an ingredient that gives you healthier options AND tastes good?’. That usually gets them to give sea vegetables a try,” Sugimura concludes.