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Salvation & Salivation 

Examining the world's love of seaweed

Twelve years ago, during an extended layover in Seoul, Korea, I discovered the ancestors of the packaged seaweed snacks that today's hip kids have in their lunchboxes. In the duty-free shopping zone, I wandered into a seaweed shop. The store was stocked, floor to ceiling, with colorful boxes and shiny packets of seaweed, in myriad varieties and various flavors. The pace was brisk on the sales floor, which was staffed by sharply-dressed sales people who took their seaweeds seriously.

Although I couldn't understand a word that was said to me, the diversity and nuance of the offerings, and paramount importance of seaweed, were evident, and I ended up spending my last won on a few boxes of toasted nori packs: sesame, wasabi, kimchi, soy and salted. They were extraordinary, transitioning seamlessly from crunchy to dissolved flavor in my mouth.

If only the rest of the world shared the respect and reverence for seaweed we find in the far northeast of Asia, the world would probably be a happier, healthier place.

Seaweed can be found anywhere that there is ocean coastline, especially cold water, and seaweed fan that I am, I'm always curious to try the local varieties. Of the 3,500 or so species of seaweed in the earth's oceans, none are known to be poisonous, though some are less edible than others. It can be tough. It can be slimy. It needs to be prepared correctly.

In Brazil, I would gather the local types from the surf, and combine them with dried shrimp to make delicious salads, and people thought I was crazy. In many coastal societies, including in parts of Brazil, seaweed is considered starvation food, a last resort, which is a shame. It could feed the world, without creating the kind of environmental damage and land use issues that plague terrestrial food production.

The plant-like algae requires no land or fertilization, grows fast, and is awash with trace elements, minerals, vitamins and other useful materials like the soluble fiber alginate, which is thought to stop the body's absorption of fat from food. Jamie Oliver recently credited his 30-pound weight loss to seaweed. And being up to 40 percent protein by dry weight, it's one of the best plant-based protein sources on earth.

A recent piece in the New Yorker detailed the vast promise of seaweed as an abundant, eco-friendly, nutritious food. The writer Dana Goodyear finds herself really wanting to like it, but can only bring herself to eat seaweed in small doses. Alas, she is not alone. But there is also plenty of evidence that people can enjoy seaweed, and not only in Korea. Japan is the world's most high profile consumer, but China and the Philippines eat a lot too. And some unexpected places, like the UK, are big seaweed consumers as well.

In Ireland, where many a winter have been survived thanks to seaweed and potatoes, there is true enthusiasm for many local forms, especially the reddish Atlantic form dulse. Nowadays, when they add it to potatoes, they add plenty of butter and cream too. Hawaii, meanwhile, has become a center in the investigation of some tasty combinations of seaweed and Spam.

The New Yorker story notes several people, a cook, a scientist and an entrepreneur, who are in a race for what's become a holy grail in the seaweed community: making it taste like bacon. Many of these optimists believe they are close, or have already achieved this lofty goal, though Goodyear respectfully disagrees.

One of the reasons some seaweeds can be made to taste vaguely bacon-like has to do with the umami taste that bacon and seaweed both possess in abundance. Umami, recently declared an official taste, refers to the meaty, savory flavor of the amino acid glutamate. The flavor of glutamate was first discovered by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who then proceeded to isolate glutamate from kelp, ending up with a white powder that today is widely known as monosodium glutamate (MSG). The French discovered the virtues of glutamate independently, via sauces made from simmered veal shinbones.

Although there probably never will be a seaweed product that can truly be mistaken for bacon, seaweed can nonetheless serve as a surprisingly effective substitute.

I would know, because when my kids clamor for bacon and eggs for breakfast, it is not good to be out of bacon. Offers to substitute broccoli or kale are not entertained, but at the suggestion of seaweed eggs, the morning harmony is restored. Like bacon, seaweed complements the eggs in a way that makes the dish feel complete.

There are many ways to combine seaweed and eggs, and I have a trick for both scrambled and "dippy" preparations.

In either case, allocate one sheet of nori per egg. Above the pan, crumble the sheets in your cupped hands-kind of like making a snowball, but also using your fingers to chop it up.

If making scrambled eggs, drop the crumbled nori into the oil or butter, and stir it around evenly before adding the beaten egg. Tilt the pan around to spread the egg, as if you're making an omelet. Sprinkle with soy sauce, fold it in half when the egg is sufficiently browned, and maybe give it a flip if you like it well cooked.

Pro tip: this recipe is particularly good with bacon, if you're equipped and so inclined. Just because you don't have to doesn't mean you shouldn't.

To make dippy, or sunny side up eggs with nori, crack the eggs to the oiled pan first. Crumble the seaweed on top when they are about half-cooked.

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