Light brown blades of wakame seaweed turn a brilliant green when submerged in hot water and then plunged into an ice bath. Though wakame is one of many seaweeds that can be eaten raw, the blanching process tenderizes it, and the color change, perhaps, amplifies its culinary appeal.
“If somebody doesn’t love seaweed already, they’re not usually attached to getting it on their menus,” says Ian O’Hollaren, founder of the new Santa Cruz-based Seaquoia Wild Seaweeds. But that could be about to change, as consumers catch on to the abundant supply of nutrients and minerals this ancient superfood provides the body and learn ways to incorporate it into their diets.
Wakame is one of several varieties of briny sea vegetables O’Hollaren harvests—with a wet suit, a knife and a kayak—north of Santa Cruz. In waters pristine from an absence of ag runoff, O’Hollaren has become familiar with at least 14 different “gardens” of seaweeds, including sea palm, nori, kombu, cat’s tongue, and the succulent and delicate tendrils of mermaid’s hair, or ogo. Cold calls and emails aside, O’Hollaren plucks from his secret gardens regularly to fill orders for three high-end restaurants in Venice Beach, as well as consumer orders on an as-needed basis. He will also soon sell his fresh, raw, wild seaweed in the produce section of New Leaf markets.
“Seaweed contains the broadest range of minerals of any food, and it contains pretty much every mineral found in the ocean, which are the same minerals in human blood,” says Madia Jamgochian, nutritional consultant and classroom education coordinator at New Leaf. Jamgochian calls the often-overlooked seaweed a “booster food” because, similar to spirulina and nutritional yeast, its benefits can be reaped in as little as a tablespoon. Up to 36 percent of its dry mass is made up of mineral elements drawn from the sea, including calcium, magnesium, manganese, nickel, cobalt, iron, zinc, potassium, B vitamins, iodine, copper, selenium, and a large proportion of iodine—important for thyroid health. Proteins, amino acids, antioxidants and omega-3s are also abundant, and studies have shown seaweed to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, detoxify and boost the immune system.
But what I like most about O’Hollaren’s operation is that although he’s capable of piling 150 pounds of superfood into his kayak, he’s not out for quantity. At the core of his ethics is a conscious choice to keep his harvest sustainable.
“The plant is held by a holdfast,” he explains. “It doesn’t have roots … So what I do is be very gentle about cutting it from the plant, and making sure I don’t rip it off the holdfast so that it regrows. So I’ll just pull from one garden and then let that rest for however long it needs.” He’s also conscious of what time of year each variety shoots out spores, which settle and grow into new fronds. “I don’t go out and have a bunch in my fridge, and if I have excess I compost it or eat it or give it away. There should never be any waste,” says O’Hollaren.
In a world where much of the seaweed we eat is imported from seaweed farms overseas—many of which dump fertilizers directly into the ocean—it’s refreshing to now have a local, wild source.
After completing his degree in tropical horticulture at the University of Hawaii, O’Hollaren spent six years living off the grid on a sustainable farmstead. “I quickly learned that Mother Nature provides everything for us if we only take what we need, give back, and understand the impact we have on our environment,” he says. In Hawaii, his love for plants blended into a love for seaweed, or “limu,” which he used both in his diet and to replenish soils and fertilize plants. In addition to harvesting the highest quality seaweeds he can find for consumption, he also makes a liquid kelp fertilizer that he supplies to local farms.
From 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept 28, Jamgochian and O’Hollaren will lead the first-ever seaweed cooking class at New Leaf, where participants can taste a variety of brown, red and green seaweeds (a combination of these three types is recommended for a full nutritional profile), as well as learn how to turn them into salads, dips, hearty soup stocks and more. Tickets are $15 on eventbrite.com.
For more information on O’Hollaren’s wild edible seaweeds or liquid fertilizer, call 805-766-8403 or email him at [email protected].