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A brief history of algal dining in China

August 17, 2017
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

The closer one gets to China’s coastal regions, the greater the variety of ways that sea algae finds its ways into the home pantries.

Li Anlan writes in ShanghaiDaily.com that, with its salty, fishy taste, seaweed brings the flavor of the ocean to the dinner table. Kelp and nori are popular algae in China to prepare dishes such as kelp salad and nori egg drop soup. The closer one gets to coastal regions, the greater the variety of ways that sea algae finds its ways into the home pantries.

Kelp, the largest edible seaweed, is low in calories and packed with protein, minerals and essential iodine. In Chinese, it’s called haidai, or “sea belt,” because of its shape. It’s widely cultivated in northern and eastern coastal provinces of China, where cooler waters form an ideal habitat.

China introduced kelp from Japan in the 1930s and began cultivating it in the area of the northeastern city of Dalian. It is mostly sold in dried form, although some supermarkets carry it fresh.

In kelp farming, the harvesting and sun-drying are the hardest parts of the business. On good weather days in May, kelp farmers sail to sea farms before dawn to harvest the seaweed. The weight of the kelp on each hemp rope is about 80 kilograms, so it’s no easy task to haul it up into a boat. Bamboo sticks arranged on tidelands are used to sun-dry the kelp, which is later cleaned of all sand particles before packaging.

Kelp is commonly used in soups because of the rich flavors it imparts. Popular combinations include kelp with tofu, with pork short ribs and with winter melon. To make a simple kelp salad, soak the dried kelp in water overnight to restore its texture. Then boil in water for 15 minutes and drain. The salad is topped with a dressing made of chili oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped scallions, ginger, garlic and vinegar.

Kelp can also be braised as a solo dish. In Cantonese cuisine, kelp is added to mung bean soup as a summer remedy to fend off heat. If you forget to soak the kelp in water overnight, you can steam an entire sheet for 15 minutes and then let it soak in the remaining hot water for one hour. Thoroughly clean the surface, and it’s ready to use. The kombu in Japanese cuisine is a type of kelp often used to make rich soup stocks or pickles.

Nori, or zicai in Chinese, are sheets of the dried red algae Porphyra, which grows in colder, shallow seawater. Nori is commonly used to wrap sushi in Japanese cuisine. In China, it’s a popular, flavorful ingredient in soups. In Chinese, nori is also called haitai, which translates as “sea moss.”

Locals in Xiapu County in Fujian Province were recorded as cultivating nori as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The area is now known as the home of nori in China.

Nori is highly nutritious, containing more protein than kelp. It is most commonly cooked in soups or with staples like rice and pancakes. Nori with dried small shrimp is a classic in many restaurants — often served as a side soup with rice or noodles. This soup is rich in iodine, iron, vitamin B12 and calcium. Nori egg drop soup is another signature Chinese dish that’s delicious and easy to make.

The seaweed can be stir-fried over low heat, with seasonings like salt, sugar and sesame oil to bring out the umami taste. For a healthy snack, toasted sheets of nori are a great substitute for a bag of potato chips. Indeed, there are many varieties of nori snacks in supermarkets, from nori crackers to nori and dried meat floss egg rolls. To make a simple snack at home, break nori sheets into desired shapes and sizes, then brush with a mixture of salt, light soy sauce, sugar and water before baking in the oven for a few minutes.

In China, taitiao refers to a kind of green algae, which is long and thin in dried form. It is rich with flavors of the sea and is popular with people living along coastal regions. Zhejiang Province is known for producing high-quality taitiao.

Taitiao can be enjoyed in many ways. One can lightly fry the seaweed in oil until the moisture disappears and a crunchy texture emerges. Fried taitiao can also be added with peanuts to make a starter that’s perfect to pair with wine or liquor. Ground taitiao can be added to flour in pastry-making. The Harbin Food Factory on Huaihai Road M. is known for its taitiao chips and crunchy taitiao cookie bars. In Ningbo, taitiao and yellow croaker is a signature local dish. Ground taitiao is mixed in a flour batter used for dipping the fish before frying.

Sea grapes are a variety of green algae from coastal regions in the Indo-Pacific. They are usually eaten raw with vinegar as a salad. In the Philippines, a dish called “ensaladang latô” prepares the sea grapes with vinegar, fish sauce, shallots and tomatoes. Sometimes called “green caviar,” sea grapes are a relatively new food to the Chinese consumers.

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