The colors are not definitive. Red algae may be red, pink or even purple in color. Green algae is green. But brown algae may be brown, very dark green or black.
Note also that processing changes the appearance. Nori, for example, is a red seaweed. But in the form used for wrapping sushi, it appears dark green, almost black.
So another way to differentiate the different seaweed types is to consider their taste and texture.
In general, red and green algae are softer and milder tasting. And the milder taste also indicates that these seaweed types do not contain as much nutrients as brown algae.
For example, the iodine content of red algae can be as low as 15 micrograms per 100 grams of seaweed, whereas brown algae might contain several thousand micrograms of iodine per 100 grams of seaweed.
In terms of calcium content, hijiki, a type of brown seaweed, contains about 14 times as much calcium as cow's milk whereas some of the red and greed seaweeds contain only about seven times as much calcium.
Yin and yang seaweed types
Among the different seaweed types, however, red and green algae are said to be more yin, as the leaves are softer and more open. Brown algae are harder and considered more yang.
This understanding offers a useful guideline on how much of the different seaweed types we can eat. Red and green seaweeds, because they are milder, can be eaten more regularly and in larger amounts. Brown seaweeds, because they are stronger, should be eaten in smaller quantities and less frequently.
If you eat too much of the yang seaweed types, you can become overly yang. Physically, your body might become more stiff and inflexible. Mentally, too, you might become inflexible and stubborn.
This is a real problem that you need to guard against. Because once you get used to the flavour, you might like seaweed a lot and end up eating too much of it. One of my macrobiotic teachers related how she used to eat a large bowl of hijiki - one of the most yang seaweed types - several times a week. And she became stiff and stubborn!
We take a closer look at the different seaweed types, with tips on how to use them and how much to consume. Some of the seaweed types also have links that will take you to recipe suggestions.
Dulse is a red seaweed commonly eaten in coastal regions of Britain, North America and Canada. It is used mainly in salads and soups. Powdered dulse might also be sprinkled over food as a condiment. Dulse is used similarly to Japanese seaweed types such as nori and wakame (below). Click here for some dulse seaweed recipes.
Nori / Laver
Nori is probably the most commonly eaten among seaweed types. It is sold by the Japanese and Koreans in large sheets (8 in x 8 in) for wrapping sushi, or as smaller strips (4 in x 1 in) either for sushi or to be eaten on its own as a snack. These strips can be highly addictive, so be careful not to eat too much.
In addition, very fine nori strips as well as nori flakes may be sprinkled over rice and other foods as a condiment. The flakes are sometimes mixed with other ingredients such as dried chilli, sesame seeds, small dried fish, dried krill (which look like tiny shrimps), or even with brightly colored unnatural condiments.
Likewise, some nori sheets come with sugar, MSG and other not-so-healthy ingredients. There are also nori sheets flavored with wasabi, chilli and other ingredients. When buying such products, check to make sure that the ingredients are all natural.
There is a great variation in the price and quality of nori. Good quality nori is delicious but might cost as much as $1 per sheet. Some cheap types don't taste good when eaten on its own or as a sushi wrap, but can be added to soups or used to make special dishes like nori condiment.
The Chinese sell nori in the form of round "cakes". Small amounts are used in soups, such as in Teochew fish soup / fish porridge / fishball noodles as well as in yong tau foo, a dish of tofu (in various forms, eg steamed or deep fried tofu, bean skin, etc) together with fishball / fish cake and vegetables.
In Europe and North America, laver is one of the commonly eaten seaweed types similar to nori.
Apart from nori, wakame is probably the most widely consumed among edible seaweeds. This is the seaweed that you would find floating in miso soup and with the universal popularity of Japanese cuisine - and now Korean cuisine as well - many people would have eaten wakame, even if they do not know its name.
Another popular way to serve wakame is as a simple salad with cucumber and vinegar. Click here for more unusual seaweed types recipes using wakame.
Wakame is also one of the more widely studied seaweeds and research shows that it can help burn fatty tissues in the body. Wakame is used in Oriental medicine for blood purification as well as to improve the function of the intestines and sexual organs. It is said to help regulate menstrual cycles and produce beautiful skin and hair - although most seaweed types probably do this as well.
Kombu / Kelp
Kombu or kelp comes in long, thick strips. These are brown seaweed types that typically grow in deep, cold waters and they can grow up to 60 metres long.
Kombu strips are hard and not always eaten. It is commonly used by the Japanese for making dashi, or soup stock, where the kombu is used only to flavour the stock, and then discarded. However, when cooked till soft, they make delicious dishes as well.
Incidentally, the flavor enhancer monododium glutamate or MSG was invented by a Japanese scientist to imitate the special flavor which the Japanese call umami. This might be translated as "pleasant savory taste" and is considered by the Japanese to be among the "five basic tastes:, the others being sweet, salty, sour and bitter. (For some reason, the Japanese left out pungent!)
But there is a big difference between kombu and MSG. While MSG is harmful to health, kombu and other sea vegetables contain natural glutamates that promote health. Don't listen to MSG propaganda claiming that factory-made and natural glutamates are the same. They are not!
Apart from making soup stock, kombu is often cooed with rice (especially brown rice) and other whole grains as well as beans. Kombu adds nutrients - mainly minerals - to the dish and is said to make whole grains and beans more easily digestible. It can also be prepared as a side dish, such as shio kombu, a dish of kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, seasoned simply with shoyu soy sauce.
Hijiki is another brown seaweed, which comes in the form of short, fat strands. A friend's daughter, who recovered from cancer as a young child from following a macrobiotic diet, described hijiki seaweed as being like "black worms". Well, a more positive description would be "black speghatti".
This is a very strong tasting seaweed and can be quite delicious once accustomed to the taste. The strong taste suggest that hijiki is extremely rich in minerals. Among seaweed types, hijiki it is richest in calcium and contains about 14 times as much calcium as milk.
Hijiki belongs to the family of seaweed types called sargassum and this was the seaweed used by Chinese physicians to treat goitre as long ago as the first century AD. In my research, I read that Chinese herbalists prescribe powdered sargassum in paper packets of 0.5 gm, to be dissolved in warm water and drunk as Seaweed Sargassum tea. It is said to remove excess phlegm. I have yet to come across this - as there are just so many types of traditional Chinese medicine.
Hijiki is commonly cooked as a side dish, such as hijiki with lotus root or hijiki with soy beans.
Arame looks like a thinner and finer version of hijiki. It is actually a one of the seaweed types in the kelp family, similar to kombu, except that it is normally cut into fine strips.
The taste is also milder compared with hijiki and arame is normally cooked in a similar way. However, because of the milder flavour, arame can be used in a wider variety of ways, including salads, soups or even cooked together with rice. One unusual arame preparation that I used to enjoy - but have not made in a long while, is arame roll, a pastry roll with arame fillings! Yummy.
For some reason, arame is more often found in organic and natural foods stores and I have yet to see it sold in Japanese supermarkets. This could be because arame is one of the seaweed types recommended in macrobiotics, but not widely used in Japanese cuisine.
Agar agar / kanten
Agar agar or kanten is not a whole seaweed but a polysaccharide - a form of carbohydrate - extracted from a type of red algae. Being an extract, it would not contain as much nutrients as other seaweed types. But it is still a relatively healthy product and its primary use as a "jelly" type dessert is certainly healthier than typical western-style desserts made from ingredients like cream and sugar. Click here for some deliciously uncoventional agar agar recipes.
Agar agar or kanten is sold as strips or small, light bars, and also in the form of flakes. Sometimes, it is also sold in powdered form, complete with sugar, artificial flavouring, coloring, etc. Avoid these.
But even with natural agar agar or kanten, you need to be careful. I remember once, in the 1990s, i could not buy them and was told by by market stall holders that the government had banned them because they were bleached. So avoid those that appear very white. The agar agar or kanten strips / bars / flakes should be slightly yellow / beige in color.
For a healthy agar agar / kanten dessert, prepare it with fruit juice, herbal teas, soy milk, coconut milk and other natural beverages instead of using sugar plus artificial flavours and colors.
This is one of the "new" seaweed types that I only started to notice in supermarkets and health stores just about two years ago. It looks interesting but I could not find much information about it. Click the link to read my comments about coralline seaweed.
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