Traditional uses of edible seaweed

Edible seaweed is often found along the shoreline during low tides around spring time.

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A serene stroll along a Northwest Coasts may prove a bit slippery around the rocks during the winter times, especially if seaweed and kelp are scattered across the coastline. But, then again, it could be a godsend for those practicing traditional ways, like the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, to harvest and prepare edible seaweed.

Red laver, commonly called edible seaweed, has the scientific name porphyra abbotae or rhodophyta. While Western science may give it a sterile, boring name, the Indigenous peoples around Vancouver island think of the plant as rich in traditional uses.

Seaweed habitats, much of it found along the whole coast of B.C. (spanning from Vancouver Island to Alaska), are found typically around rocks along the seashore or in sheltered waters. Naturally, this makes for easy pickings, which may explain why it was so commonly used among a lot of coastal Indigenous groups.

Many of these First Nations across Vancouver Island, though much of the traditional use was practiced by mid-coast and northern groups, use the seaweed as a food source. The best time to gather edible seaweed is usually in May, when the plants are exposed from low tide during spring.

The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw and Haida peoples used an old, but proven method of curing red laver: partially dry it, letting them ferment ever so slightly, and then press it into a cedar box. Eventually, the box would have many layers of seaweed in it, flavored occasionally with Western Red-cedar boughs. Other flavors might include chewed rock chitons (a type of shellfish).

After packing a box or two full of flavored seaweed, the seaweed would then be weighed down with rock, usually for a month. Rinse, repeat around three times. After the seaweed measured roughly two centimeters thick, it was then stored for the winter.

Now, the juicy part: to prepare the seaweed, the cook would tear the seaweed into strips, chop them into smaller pieces with an adze, which is somewhat similar to an axe, and then chewed the pieces. The seaweed would then be soaked in water and boiled.

The prepared seaweed is ideal as a small dish alongside eulachon grease, boiled dog salmon (chum) or even boiled clams. According to some accounts it is proper Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw etiquette that one may drink water after eating seaweed at a feast, but never before.

One other way to prepare seaweed is to hang the individual blades of seaweed on a drying-rack over a fire. Leave them to dry until they are slightly brown, then pound the dried seaweed until it looks like a fine powder. This seaweed powder could be mixed with water or, more interestingly, whipped into a froth and eaten as dessert!

The most common way to cure seaweed, especially for those who can’t be bothered with much preparation work, is to simply dry it on the rocks under the sun. Plain and simple. When it’s dry, break it into smaller pieces (think, popcorn size), store it in a bucket or just eat it right then and there, embracing its saltiness.

Others have boiled the seaweed with grease, halibut heads, clams and creamed corn. For those interested, it’s a useful laxative and it’s quite healthy for you. For example, Carrier and Tsilhqot’in peoples have reportedly used it as a medicine for when one has a swollen neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland.

Interestingly, Indigenous peoples along the coast have used red laver as an item of trade. Central Coast Salish, it’s believed, used to sell it during the early half of the century.