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Sea Vegetables: An Immortality Elixir

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 9, 10, and 30


The earliest record of seaweed use as a food in China came from Chinese poetry. Often called 'sea weed' or 'sea vegetable,' this poem in The Book of Songs was written somewhere around eight hundred to six hundred BCE. It tells of a woman cooking them. In the oldest known Chinese encyclopedia, the Ehr Ya, written circa 300 BCE, it speaks of a dozen sea vegetable species. The Chinese were not the only early culture to value sea vegetables, called 'phycophagy.' The Aztecs used them and in Greece, Pythagoras mentions them. In the United States, they are mentioned somewhat later, that is in Hawaii’s early history when local people are said to have consumed more than seventy different sea veagetable species.

For those unfamiliar with them, they may know them as 'dulse' or 'sea parsley' or 'sea lettuce.' One variety of this multi-maned sea item is botanically called Ulva lactuca. It and all micro- and macroscopic algae are edible; they are classified by color, most green, red, purple, brown or black. They were and are collected from areas in and around rocks, in shallow water, in intertidal zones, and at the shore. Dulse and others have been and still are known by many different names individually or collectively and they have many different uses. As to the exact number of sea vegetables worldwide, there are in the neighborhood of several thousand, perhaps seven or eight thousand, and most but not all of them are found in the eastern part of Asia.

Today, large numbers and many kinds of sea vegetables are raised, not just gathered, and the cultivation of sea vegetables is a multi-million dollar business. They are harvested, mostly by hand and from small boats, and it still is rather labor intensive. The most popular ones used in cooking are red or brown, the latter are usually the largest and found in cooler waters. Overall, all sea vegetables are among the lowest eight classification groups and they are among the lowest items in the food chain.

In China, they have been respected and have been used for thousands of years. As a group, are referred to as hai cai which means 'sea vegetables' and that is why this magazine uses that nomenclature rather than calling them seaweeds. Overall, the Chinese eat many types of them but four kinds are consumed most often. One is flat and purple and used primarily in soups and hot pots; it is known as tzu cai. There is one that is hair-like and black and called fa cai. It is found near Mongolian desert springs, elsewhere in Mongolia, and in the province of Fujian. This beloved variety is a prized medicinal that you may have heard called 'black moss.' It is probably the most expensive of all, is popular in Buddhist vegetarian cooking, and though there are many varieties, Graciliaria verrucosa is the most common among them. Other popular sea vegetables are yang cai known as 'ocean vegetable,' and dong fen the most used seaweed made into agar agar. It is important to note that Chinese names, like those in English, are used interchangeably and sometimes with little attention to the exact one in question.

More than fifty sea vegetable species are commonly used by the Chinese. When looking at them by color, the reds and purples, called rhodophyta, are the most light receptive and usually found at the lowest depths. These include dulse, purple nori or laver, and Irish moss. The browns, or phaeophyta, are probably the largest group; they usually live at medium depths. Common among them are the kelps and tea tangles. The greens and yellow-greens are the chlorophyta and xanthophyta; they are found near the surface in tidal pools and on land. All of these types have been used as flavoring or as major ingredients and all of them have been prepared in a plethora of different ways.

For those not familiar, 'agar agar' is a gelatin-like product that needs soaking for half an hour in cold water before use. Its most common use is as a thickener for cold foods, but it is also frequently cooked with chicken and bamboo shoots. And, it is found as a money-stretcher augmenting bird’s nest and shark’s fin dishes. It comes in long threads or long rectangle sticks, and it comes powdered. Known as 'kanten' or 'vegetable gelatin,' it is derived from one or another sea vegetable or a mixture of several of them.

Sea vegetables reproduce from pieces broken off of larger plants and from spores, these are the main ways of cultivatint them. Some say that the Japanese in the early eighteenth century sank oak and bamboo poles into Tokyo Bay and cultivated sea vegetables for the first time. Nowadays, most people use ropes and nets instead of poles and they move these as they grow, into open sea areas or they place them in lakes or inland ponds made specifically for growing them. The entire process takes about two years from spore to harvest and Japan’s sea water is an excellent place to grow them. It is better there for most varieties than in China’s sea areas because China’s coast is not as high in salinity. China has developed many inland hatcheries where they can control this and so they, too, now raise many different sea vegetables; they also import many tons of them.

No matter where they are raised, most sea vegetables are harvested, then dried in the sun, as they were in ancient times. Newer methods are to dry them by machine and there are many techniques including making sheets from chopped pieces put on wooden frames before drying; and washing then sun bleaching, rinsing again and boiling for hours, freeze drying, thawing, cleaning, and then drying again. The former method makes laver sheets, the latter makes agar agar.

Considered the 'Elixir of Immortality,' the Chinese consider these sea items, as able to prolong life, counteract the effects of aging, and make a person live a healthier and happier life. The story is told, that in the third century BCE, Emperor Shih Huang-ti had two obsessions. One was to protect China from invaders; and so he built the Great Wall. The second was to find this elixir. He sent emissaries off to locate what was prophesied as a substance that bestowed eternal youth on Taoist immortals. One fellow supposedly returned but left soon afterwards never divulging what he found or where. His discovery and secret was, they thought, that immortality was found in the sea vegetables he did not bring back.

In China, they believe that the written character or ideograph for sea is a full-breasted mother with milk-filled breasts and the radical for sea. That character, pronounced hai is reported to mean green and wide, thus they deem it as mother and garden. They also believe that these vegetables do not absorb pollutants, are powerhouses of minerals, vitamins, and proteins, and are mother’s gift to man. They claim that because nutrients on land leach into the sea, they are then absorbed by the sea vegetables.

Considerable importance is given to them, as the above indicates, and therefore, the Chinese culture believes them not just foods for the poor and the peasant. As a matter of fact, in the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), the purple sea vegetable known as ping tan, which is a laver, was added to the list of tribute items to be offered to the emperor. He did not indicate if he wanted them because of taste, long life, or other medicinal values, but wanted them he did.

He and other Chinese knew that they are considered cold, and so they prescribe them for those with hot conditions. They recommend them to pregnant women but never to people considered weak. Chinese report them valuable for those who have and to prevent the growth of influenza type B virus, and for children with mumps. Some Chinese traditional medical doctors tout their value as an anti-coagulant and for their use as an anti-tumor agent.

In the United States, at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, they found that a diet high in sea vegetables can prevent hay fever; and the United States Government says that seaweed oil contains a thousand times more Vitamins A and D than cod liver oil. Some scientists at McGill University in Canada said that some of them inhibit the body’s absorption of radioactive elements and remove those already absorbed into the tissues.

In China, farmers use sea vegetables to fertilize their coffee, coconut, and sweet potato crops; and everyone keeps some around, and for years. One of them, hair moss is said to clean out the system and provide other valuable uses. Chefs use this vegetable when making panda decorations on banquet dishes, the black color made with fa cai. When chefs make lakes black in color, that most often they are made with black moss that is fried. It shrinks considerably and provides a wonderful crisp counterpoint to shrimp and other sea foods on those platters.

The black or purple laver is usually made from P. gloiopeltis or P. monostroma species. Many elder Chinese use it as an herbal. They believe it regulates the thyroid and that it stops bleeding. They also use it as bandaging material for wounds. Younger Chinese are surprised to learn that sea vegetables made into sheets are Chinese and not Japanese; and that the Chinese have used these sheets longer than the Japanese.

We recall a couple visiting from the mainland, Chemist colleagues of my husband, who said they had never seen a rolled food item, namely the minced shrimp I made. They said it was a Japanese adaption into Chinese food. However, when I went to my huge library of Chinese culinaria and showed them a recipe in Chinese (and English) that said that sushi originated in China and later went to Japan, and that this particular recipe, circa the fourteen hundreds, was used extensively until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911 CE). They thanked us for the culinary education. We thanked them for the additional translations we got of the many details we could not read.

When you buy black and purple laver, which the Japanese call nori, take care if it looks shiny. This type is preferred in soups and stews as they are oiled and hold together longer. We, however, rarely buy any that way because as such, they go rancid all too quickly. Kelp, Laminaria spp., also called 'sea tangle' and an item the Chinese recommend for sprains and cuts and bruises has no such problem. It can be used no matter the variety and from golden to black. It is best knotted in a soup or used in stew-like dishes to provide another texture and a delightful saline taste. You may not want to purchase green laver as much of it is used to feed the pigs; it is also used as a cooling medicine for man.

We recommend trying them all, one by one, of course, as all varieties taste differently, and they have a myriad of different uses. Experimentation is suggested. Buy dried ones first and experiment; the Chinese have for years. Teach yourself by trying one of the following recipes:
Seaweed Eggdrop Soup
Ingredients:
6 cups chicken broth
2 sheets purple or green laver sheets
1 large square soft or silken tofu, cut into long thin strips
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 egg, beaten
dash white pepper ˝ luffa or silk squash, peeled, angle sliced, and blanched for one minute
Preparation:
1. Bring broth to the boil, then reduce heat to simmer.
2. Using a scissor, cut the laver sheets into long thin strips, about two inches by quarter of an inch, then add to the broth with the tofu, rice wine, and ginger.
3. Slowly stir in the egg and pepper; and the luffa, if used, and serve.
Kelp. Golden Mushrooms, and Vegetables
Ingredients:
6 to 8 inches of kelp, soaked in boiling water for two hours, then thin sliced
1/4 pound agar agar blanched in boiling water, then drained and shredded
2 stalks Chinese Celery, cut into one-inch by 1/4-inch pieces, blanched half a minute
1/4 pound golden mushrooms, lowest 1/4-inch removed
1 carrot, cut into one-inch by 1/4-inch pieces and blanched for one minute 2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
Preparation:
1. Mix all solid ingredients, tossing lightly so as not to break them.
2. Beat or whip soy sauce, sesame oil, and vinegar, then toss with the vegetables and serve.
Fruit Kanten
Ingredients:
4 sticks agar agar (or one tablespoon powdered gelatin)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (or two tablespoons almond powder)
1 cup diced mixed cooked fruit or fruit cocktail
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream (optional)
Preparation:
1. Dissolve agar agar in one cup of boiling water; add sugar and extract or almond powder. Stir well, then pour into a square or rectangular glass dish.
2. Let cool half an hour, then stir in the fruit and two-thirds of a cup of water or the ice cream, and refrigerate until set.
3. Cut into diamond shapes, plate, and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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