Jun 082016
 

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Today is World Oceans Day. It has been unofficially celebrated every 8 June since its original proposal in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in late 2008. It has been coordinated since 2003 by The Ocean Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group, with increasing participation each year since.

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Marking the World Oceans Day, the UN has underlined these facts and figures:

— Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 per cent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume;

— Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods;

— Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at 3 trillion dollars per year or about 5 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product;

— Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions.

— Oceans absorb about 30 per cent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

— Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

— Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.

— Subsidies for fishing contribute to the rapid depletion of many fish species and prevent efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate 50 billion dollars less per year than they could.

— As much as 40 per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats.

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It’s astonishing to me how cavalier people are about the health of the world’s oceans. I get the impression that people assume that the oceans are so vast that you can just dump anything you want in them and they will take care of it, instead of understanding that they need care, same as any other ecosystem. This year, the theme of World Oceans Day is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” with a specific focus on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a serious threat because it degrades very slowly, polluting waterways for a very long time. In addition, plastic pollution impacts the health of aquatic animals, not least because animals including zooplankton mistake the microbeads for food and are seriously damaged by their ingestion.

Children play on the litter-strewn beach off Jacmel

When I was a teenager, certain fish such as cod and mackerel, were treated in Britain (and elsewhere) as inexhaustible stocks for food. Overfishing has proven that perspective to be misguided. Cod and mackerel are now reaching dangerously low levels worldwide and may be unsustainable in the near future. A big part of the problem lies in limited culinary habits in some cultures. Just because a recipe calls for cod does not mean you have to buy cod. Use pollock, coley, hake, or whiting instead. These are wonderful fish, and not endangered as yet. But for today’s recipe ideas I’m going to turn from fish to seaweed.

Seaweeds are used extensively as food in coastal cuisines around the world although consumption varies widely. Seaweeds can be foraged naturally or farmed, and are generally favorable to marine ecosystems. The main potential problem with farming is the possibility of certain species becoming invasive. Seaweed has been an important part of the diet in China, Japan, and Korea since prehistoric times. Seaweed is also consumed in many traditional European societies, such as Iceland and western Norway, northern and western Ireland, Wales, and some coastal parts of South West England, as well as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is much less common in coastal France, Spain, Italy, and the United States, although interest is growing there because of the influx of Asian cuisines.

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Seaweed has many health benefits because it contains abundant health-promoting materials, such as dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. It can be a good source of protein and lipids, with concentration levels varying between the types of seaweed.

I’d say have at it with whatever seaweed you can find. In China and Japan there are tons of fresh varieties readily available in supermarkets. I always had some on hand for salads or stir fries and soups when I lived in Yunnan. In the West it’s not quite so common, but you can find varieties in oriental stores as well as in conventional supermarkets if you look hard enough. Sheets of nori are pretty common. Here I’ll focus on kombu.

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Kombu (昆布) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae and is widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带). Most kombu that is sold is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. With the development of cultivation technology, over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea.

During the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) in Japan, a newly developed drying technique allowed kombu to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period (1603 and 1868), as Hokkaidō was colonized and shipment routes were organized, the use of kombu became widespread throughout Japan. Traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet and this practice began in the Edo period. Okinawa uses more kombu per household than any other prefecture. In the 20th century, a way to cultivate kombu was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.

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Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (oboro kombu, tororo kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi. Kombu is a good source of glutamic acid, an amino acid responsible for umami, the Japanese word used for a basic taste identified in 1908, but still not very widely acknowledged in the West. Wake up people – we have taste buds just for umami.

Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi stock. I’ve described how to make this already: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/motoori-norinaga/ .

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Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It can also be included when cooking dried beans to add nutrients and improve their digestibility, reputedly because the kombu cuts flatulence when the beans are eaten.

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