Seaweed Foraging and Kimchi’s American Roots

Chad Campbell records us as we forage for seaweed. Photo by Elissa Rumsey.

I made my NPR debut this morning talking about… seaweed foraging, of all things! Yes, random, I know.

Last year, my partner and I went up to Bodega Bay to visit our friends, Chad and Elissa. On a whim, I decided to see if Forage SF was offering seaweed foraging classes on the Sonoma Coast that weekend. Sure enough, they were! I had long wanted to take this class, but waking up at 4am to make the 90 minute drive from San Francisco deterred me. Since I was going to be there anyway, it felt like the perfect opportunity.

Chad and Elissa, who hail from Virginia, had never heard of seaweed foraging, and asked me lots of questions about it. I realized, to my amusement, that what felt like a perfectly normal thing for me to want to do might feel exotic to others. Going seaweed foraging didn’t feel any different to me than, say, going apple picking. I, like many Koreans, grew up eating seaweed soup and banchan. Furthermore, anyone who eats sushi also eats seaweed, which holds the rolls of rice and fish together, and salted sheets are ubiquitous in the snack aisle of many grocery stores.

I loved the class, which was taught by Heidi Herrmann of Strong Arm Farm. When I saw Chad and Elissa after the class, I gave them some seaweed to taste and gifted them some Turkish Towel, which you can use as an exfoliant for your own personal spa treatment.

Chad and Elissa were back in Bodega Bay this summer, and when my partner and I were making plans to visit them again, they suggested that we go seaweed foraging together! I was thrilled! Even though I’m still a complete novice, I had ventured out with friends a few times since taking the class and felt comfortable guiding others. Plus — as mentioned in the NPR piece — all of the seaweed found on the beach we were visiting was edible (although not necessarily tasty), so I wasn’t worried about killing anybody.

When Chad, who’s a producer at NPR, said he wanted to do a little audio story about our outing, I felt a little less comfortable. I didn’t want to come off as if I knew more than I did, which is very little. Chad assured me that it would be fine, and I trusted his storytelling skills. Coincidentally, when we got to the beach, we discovered that Heidi was there as well teaching another class. That worked out perfectly for the story. Chad hung out with Heidi and her class for a bit, getting good audio clips from someone who knows what she’s talking about, then joined me and Elissa for our own adventures.

I love how the final story turned out. It was amazing to see how Chad was able to transform an hour of raw audio footage into a tight, three minute story, and it’s such a gift to have a pro documenting your fun times together. I’ve heard my recorded voice enough over the years that I’m no longer wigged out by it. Still, I was amused by how excited I sounded about finding Turkish towel. What’s not clear from the story is that it was actually Chad who found it, and the piece he found was a beauty!

At the end of the story, Chad shares a story I tell about kimchi, which was part of a longer, rambling story that didn’t make it into the clip. After I took the class, my friend, Jon, asked me to bring him along the next time I went. Jon and his wife, Linzy, are both nature and food lovers, and it didn’t surprise me that they wanted to go, but it turned out that Jon had other reasons. Jon is part Welsh, and Welsh people eat seaweed! Specifically, Jon wanted to make laverbread, a flat cake made from seaweed paste and oats. A few months later, we managed to find a patch of laver at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, which Jon converted into these delicious cakes.

Laverbread (made by Jon Robson) with bacon, eggs, tomatoes, and beans.

I had only eaten seaweed in Asian food, and it never occurred to me that anyone else eats seaweed, which of course is ridiculous. Lots of cultures live by the ocean, and every culture has learned how to take what’s close to them and turn it into something delicious. But in today’s world, everything has gotten homogenized, and so we miss out on wonderful things like laverbread.

Food connects us to place and to each other in beautiful, often surprising ways. Riffing on this got me talking about how global our food systems have always been, and how different cultures have influenced each other in surprising ways. Prior to the 1500s, Korean kimchi was mild, because they had not yet discovered chili peppers, which come from the Americas. Similarly, as Bill Buford explains in his book, Heat, Italian polenta was made of barley and there was no pasta with marinara sauce, because both corn and tomatoes also come from the Americas.

Let me know if you want to go seaweed foraging sometime!

11 replies to “Seaweed Foraging and Kimchi’s American Roots”

  1. Love this post! Wonderful to see you last weekend. Appreciate all you shared while we foraged. I have already put the Turkish towel to good use, plus i feel virtuous eating seaweed every day. (Running low, so perhaps another trip to the beach, soon … .)

    1. So great to see you too, Elissa. I love that we got you eating seaweed! Both of your adventurousness has me inspired. I definitely want to expand my horizons and forage for and taste the seaweeds that I don’t recognize.

  2. Thx for sharing your adventures!!! I received this email from my guardian angel, Raines Cohen. I taught “Sea Vegetable Gathering and Cooking” in the DF Bay Area for many years.

  3. I love this Eugene, how amazing that your love of food and culture has brought you to explore your relationship with seaweed in this way. Great piece that Chad put together as well, and as a fellow food and nature lover, would be a treat to go seaweed foraging at some point!

Leave a Reply to Odin Cancel reply