Dive into the World of Seaweed Foraging: A Beginner’s Guide

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There are over 12,000 types of seaweeds in the world. And more than 25,000 species of algae. From red to brown to all. The kicker? They are all edible. As of today, all known types of seaweeds are safe for your consumption — none are toxic, and none are poisonous. Still, some are very acidic, and or just nasty when slurped up. In this article, we’re going to dive into the age-old world of seaweed foraging. We’ll give you the 4-1-1, the proverbial skinny, the facts, on how to forage for seaweed. It’s not just nori – that dried red algae that make your maki rolls wonderfully to behold – it’s a whole world “under the sea,” where the “seaweed is always greener” and “the newt plays the flute. The carp play the harp. the plaice play the bass.”

A brief history of seaweed foraging

Seaweed foraging, also known as seaweed harvesting, is the practice of collecting and using various types of seaweed for food, medicine, and other purposes. Seaweed has been harvested for thousands of years, with evidence of its use dating back to ancient times.

The history of seaweed foraging can be defined by one maxim — if you were a civilization with the beachfront property then you were going to make the most out of all “the hunter and gatherer” contract stipulated. 

Let’s look at some of the most legendary historical societies that adopted seaweed as one of their main food sources.

  • In Japan, seaweed foraging dates back to at least the 8th century, with the practice of collecting nori seaweed being documented in historical texts. Nori is still a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine today, often used to wrap sushi rolls.
  • In Ireland, seaweed foraging has been a tradition for centuries, with different types of seaweed being used for food, medicine, and fertilizer. Seaweed was also used as a source of fuel and to make soap.
  • In Scotland, seaweed was traditionally used as a fertilizer, and the industry boomed in the 19th century with the development of kelp extraction methods. Kelp was used to making soda ash, which was an important ingredient in the production of glass and soap.
  • In North America, indigenous communities have been using seaweed for thousands of years for food and medicine. For example, the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest used seaweed to treat various ailments and as a source of food.

Currently, seaweed foraging is still practiced around the world, and seaweed is used for a variety of purposes, including food, fertilizer, cosmetics, and even biofuels. According to reports, the global commercial seaweed market is valued at approximately 15 billion dollars as of 2021. The industry is expected to grow in the next year or so by 10.5%. 

Seaweed is a key ingredient in most supplements, cosmetics, and foods — not just sushi. For example, most shampoos, skin care creams, ice creams, industrial gums, and fertilizers use extracts from seaweed. The carrageenan extracted from red seaweed is a crucial ingredient in puddings, chewing gum, jams, and jellies, it’s one of the most used thickening agents in the food and beverage industry. 

How to start seaweed foraging?

Depending on where you are, and the season, you might stumble into a veritable smorgasbord of seaweeds to forage or find yourself navel-gazing as you stare at a desolate landscape — it’s part of the give or take of the game. Nevertheless, here’s a quick guide on what to expect, what type of seaweeds are most commonly foraged, what gear to take with you, and other beginner tips to take to heart. 

Most common types of seaweed found by foragers

There are many types of seaweed that are foraged around the world, but some of the most common ones include:

  • Nori: Nori is a popular seaweed in Japanese cuisine and is often used to wrap sushi. It is also used in miso soup and as a garnish.
  • Dulse: Dulse is a red seaweed that is normally found in the Atlantic Ocean. It is often eaten raw or dried and is sometimes used as a seasoning or snack.
  • Kombu: Kombu is a type of brown seaweed that is commonly employed in Japanese cuisine to make dashi, a broth used as a base for many soups and sauces.
  • Wakame: Wakame is a type of brown seaweed that is often used in Japanese and Korean cuisine. It is often used in salads, soups, and stews.
  • Sea lettuce: Sea lettuce is a green seaweed that is commonly found in coastal areas around the world. It is often used in salads and soups.
  • Irish moss: Irish moss is a red seaweed that is commonly found in the Atlantic Ocean. It is often used as a thickener in recipes and is sometimes used in cosmetics.
  • Bladderwrack: Bladderwrack is a brown seaweed that is commonly found in the North Atlantic. It is sometimes used in herbal medicine and as a source of iodine.

Tips to start you on your seaweed foraging adventure

Here are some steps, quick tidbits, and expert tips for beginners who want to start seaweed foraging:

  • Learn about the types of seaweed found in your area: Before you start foraging, it’s important to get a clear picture of which types of seaweed are safe – or at the very least tasty – to eat and how to identify them. You can find books, online resources, and local workshops to help you learn about the different types of seaweed.
  • Check local regulations: Some areas may have regulations or restrictions on seaweed harvesting, so make sure you know the rules before you start foraging. You can check with local authorities or organizations for information.
  • Find a good location: Seaweed is best harvested in clean, unpolluted waters. Look for rocky areas with clear water, and avoid areas with heavy boat traffic or pollution. And always, regardless of where you fished your seaweed, it’s critical that you wash it out before biting into it. 
  • Use sustainable harvesting practices: Only take what you need and leave the rest for the ecosystem to thrive. Don’t uproot the seaweed, instead cut it with scissors or a knife, leaving the holdfast – the root-like structure – attached to the rock. Harvest only mature plants, leaving the young ones to grow.
  • Wash the seaweed: After harvesting, wash the seaweed thoroughly with clean water to remove any debris or sand. If you’re on the fence – due to water contamination – your best bet is to boil the seaweed before ingesting it. 
  • Use the seaweed: Seaweed can be used in a variety of ways, such as adding it to soups, salads, and stir-fries, or using it as a topping for sushi. You can also use it in skin care products, fertilizers, and even as a natural dye.
  • Go with an experienced forager: Going with someone who has experience in seaweed foraging can help you learn more quickly and avoid mistakes.
  • Dress appropriately: Wear water-resistant shoes and clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. Bring gloves and a bag or container to hold the seaweed.
  • Don’t over-harvest: Over-harvesting can damage the ecosystem and harm marine life. Only take what you need and be mindful of how much you’re harvesting.
  • Be aware of tides: Tides can change quickly and can leave you stranded if you’re not careful. Check the tide schedule before you start foraging and be mindful of the time.

Sweet gorging equipment — what to invest in

Seaweed foraging does not require much equipment, all you really need is a can-do spirit and a couple of things — nothing you can’t find in your kitchen.

Let’s look at some of the tools you might need for foraging seaweed:

  • Scissors or a knife: You’ll need a tool to cut the seaweed from its holdfast without damaging it or the rock it’s attached to.
  • Gloves: Wearing gloves can protect your hands from sharp rocks or any rough edges on the seaweed.
  • Bag or container: You’ll need a container to hold the seaweed as you collect it. A mesh bag is ideal because it allows water to drain out, but any bag or container with a lid will work.
  • Waterproof footwear: Since you’ll be in the water and on slippery rocks, it’s important to wear footwear that provides good traction and is water-resistant.
  • Tide chart: Knowing the tide schedule can help you plan your foraging trip and avoid getting stranded.
  • Sun protection: If you’re foraging on a sunny day, don’t forget to wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes.
  • First aid kit: It’s always a good idea to have a basic first aid kit with you in case of any injuries.

Why try seaweed foraging?

Seaweed foraging can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. It gives you the opportunity to connect with nature, get out in the open, and learn about marine ecosystems. Seaweed foraging also provides you with a great opportunity to explore new flavors and add healthy and sustainable ingredients to your diet. So grab your gear and do the twist and become a seaweed forager.

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