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28 may 2017

I can't remember the first time I ate seaweed. Visibly, I mean. As Kaori O'Connor points out in her global history, seaweed is ubiquitous in processed foods, so in an America where carrageenan, agar, and "stabilizers and emulsifiers" dominate ingredient lists, I have been eating seaweed derivatives since infancy, like anyone else in this country.

The first time I knowingly ate seaweed that looked like seaweed was probably the first time I ate sushi, in my 20s: in the 1980s, when sushi went from a weird joke about Japanese foodways to an essential part of American urban life. Suddenly little packets of rice and fish were an everyday food, wrapped in black stuff that looked a bit like paper, had the consistency of ultra-thin leather, and tasted like nothing at all. On the side you might get miso soup; I never quite realized till I read Seaweed that the green leafy bits floating in that side dish are usually wakame – not a vegetable at all but a kind of algae, like all seaweed.

I guess I knew seaweed was algae before I picked up this book, but O'Connor has given me a greatly elaborated sense of both its strange differences from plants and animals, and its strange symbiosis with plants and animals. Strangest of all is the way seaweed takes in nourishment: through its entire surface area, like some bizarre invader in a movie about aliens. In quasi-sympathetic-magic terms that are almost surely bogus, seaweed beauty treatments and therapies seek to plaster people with seaweed so that we can ingest its benefits by osmosis.

The seaweeds are such a resourceful and adaptive group of organisms that they cover vast stretches of the world's oceans. O'Connor establishes that, directly and indirectly, seaweed is a crucial human habitat. Fish and other creatures that feed us, feed in or on seaweed forests. Humans employ seaweed as fertilizer, animal feed, and superfood. Seaweed is basically protein and fiber, with a very healthy dash of essential minerals. You can't live on it exclusively – I think you'd get rabbit starvation if you tried – but it makes an outstanding supplement to a starch-and-veg diet. O'Connor presents theories that human populations radiated along coastlines, sustained by seaweed belts just offshore. This inductive approach to prehistory makes a good deal of sense, even if archeological evidence of algae-eating will never be particularly strong.

Seaweed is truly a global history. O'Connor talks more about Japan than any other single culture, but she also ranges from China to the Pacific coasts of America to the Caribbean, northern Europe and Scandinavia. She pauses for a substantial discussion of Korea, where a distinct local tradition of seaweed use stands out in contrast to neighboring Japan. In particular, O'Connor cites a Korean treat made of crispy fried laver, full of salt and sesame oil, which I will witness is one of the most addictive snacks on earth.

O'Connor notes that seaweed is essential to Welsh and Irish cuisines. I've had only one breakfast in Wales in my life, and I now regret that it didn't include laverbread, which is apparently a kind of seaweed-oatmeal scrapple that sounds like an ideal accompaniment to eggs. I've certainly had Irish seaweed desserts, shaped by carrageen moss. But O'Connor also notes the popularity of dulse in both countries, as a savory snack or substitute for meat – and I'd never even heard of dulse.

You can bet I paid more attention at my local foodie supermarket yesterday. They did have dulse flakes, as well as quite a few brands of sushi nori. I was after wakame, though, and found a little packet of dried Japanese wakame strips, intended for "instant" use in miso soup. I rehydrated a small handful of them – they really do grow to twenty times their size in water, the packet wasn't kidding – and while they were soaking, I diced up some raw tuna, avocado, and mango.

My objective was poke, a Hawaiian cold salad described by O'Connor as "a cult food" (91). She gives no poke recipes, because you don't really have to. Marinate your diced raw fish in soy sauce and sesame oil for a while, add seaweed of choice, and you are basically there. Many types of poke feature onions, but I used avocado and mango to replicate a wonderful kind I'd had in a restaurant – in upstate New York of all places – several years ago. Poke is fine just jumbled in a bowl, but I did the restaurant thing and made it into little stacks with a food mold.

Gotta work on getting those stacks more even.

O'Connor's recipes are mostly for breads and soups. Some of the ingredients, like Hokkaidan kombu and Welsh laver, may be a little tricky to obtain even at a foodie shop in middle America. Nori, as I said, is pretty easy to get these days, and O'Connor features a Hawaiian dish called Spam musube, which looks basically like an oversized piece of sushi secured by a strap of nori to a slice of Spam. Maybe this is one cultural appropriation I will avoid.

Is seaweed the sustainable superfood of the future? O'Connor suggests that societies adventurous enough to incorporate more of the algae will benefit. Certainly there is an immense amount of edible, healthy, and frankly delicious weed floating in the world's oceans. But like any other wild resource, it can be overcollected; and mariculture devoted to intensive seaweed cultivation brings the same risks as monocultures on land. For now, though, seaweed looks like a good bet to establish more and more of a presence in global cuisines.

O'Connor, Kaori. Seaweed: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.