This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Food-wise, two things happened for me in 2009: all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants boomed in Italy, and I developed a phobia of carbohydrates.
That’s why, in the following years, I’d usually pick a Japanese restaurant for dinner with my boyfriend or friends, where I’d order three servings of sashimi and four of seaweed salad. Like many other calorie-conscious eaters out there, I thought the fluorescent tangle of greens was a healthier alternative to rice bowls and sushi rolls.
Seaweed salad, or goma wakame in Japanese, is made with undaria pinnatifida, an edible seaweed used widely in Japanese cuisine. On paper, it’s very nutritious: high in fibre and protein, 45 calories per 100g, plus calcium, iodine and lots of vitamins and minerals. Wakame seaweed is mainly grown and consumed in Japan and Korea. After being “fished” from the sea, the seaweed is blanched to better preserve it. It’s then sold fresh or dried to be exported abroad.
Goma wakame literally means “sesame seaweed”. It’s hard to trace its exact origins, but it seems the history of the popular side dish pretty much starts and stops at Japanese restaurants in Europe. Japanese food journalist Melinda Joe, who lives and works in Tokyo, said the salad is not only not popular in Japan, but pretty much unknown. “Goma wakame? Like wakame in sesame sauce?” she asked when I mentioned the dish. “I don’t think that’s a common way to eat wakame here.” After I showed her a picture, she said she recognised it, but doesn’t see it often.
Jun Giovannini, chef at the Mu Fish restaurant in Nova Milanese, near Milan, confirmed that so-called goma wakame is not consumed in Japan. “It’s a Chinese dish, not Japanese,” she said. “It is not even healthy, contrary to what people might think, because of how it’s processed with dyes before being sold.”
To make the salad, the dried seaweed is dipped in water, drained, cut into small pieces and then mixed with soy sauce, mirin, sesame, sesame oil, yuzu juice, grated ginger, rice vinegar, chilli and sugar. Online, I found lots of recipes for the dish – all very similar. This, coupled with the fact that all the recipes used stock photos and didn’t mention specifics, made me suspect they were all copy-pasted.
I also found a few recipes for Chinese seaweed salads that included much more detail. But it’s hard to verify that the dish actually originated in China.
I’ve eaten a lot seaweed salads in my time, and I’ve always found it odd that the taste, look and texture is always so consistent. One explanation is that lots of restaurants have store-bought salads on their menu. Most Asian supermarkets in Italy have ready-made seaweed salad on their shelves, sometimes even frozen and in bulk. The ingredients list on these is full of dyes, added sugar and various preservatives and thickeners, which – besides turning this fresh-looking ingredient into a highly processed dish – also boosts its overall calorie count.
According to chef Giovannini, wakame seaweed itself is actually a typical Japanese ingredient, eaten as far back as 700AD, in the Asuka period. “We usually eat wakame in kaisou salads, a dish made with other types of seaweed,” she said. “Or we have it on its own with cucumber, avocado or tomato.” Although the seasoning of these Japanese dishes is similar to the goma wakame we’re familiar with – sesame-oil and sesame-based sauces – the appearance and taste are totally different. Wakame can also be stir-fried, added to soups and eaten with sashimi or octopus.
Food scientist and nutritionist, Dr Edoardo Mocini, says people often think Japanese and Asian cuisine is very healthy, but that’s not necessarily the case. “The Japanese, for example, eat a lot of salt,” he said. “They have higher rates of stomach and oesophagal cancer, which is probably correlated, among other things, with the frequent consumption of alcohol and very hot broths.”
He also warns about the health halo surrounding sushi, since the rice is often soaked in plum syrup, water and sugar. “From a marketing perspective, sushi seems healthy,” he said, “and many are convinced that it has very few calories. But it doesn’t.” Of course, this doesn't mean sushi should be considered junk food, but you should think of it as a regular meal out, not as a way to do “do your body good”, Dr Mocini said.
So, if you actually enjoy your seaweed side dish, just continue ordering it in peace. But remember: it’s not the same as getting a green salad.