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Wakame is a type of edible seaweed or sea vegetable that is traditionally used in Japanese and Korean cuisines. The seaweed is leafy and deep green in color, and is usually available in a dried, dehydrated form, although fresh varieties that are preserved in salt are also sold. Its taste is mild and somewhat similar to spinach, and it is often used in soups and salads. Wakame is considered to be a healthy, macrobiotic food due to its low fat and cholesterol content and its high concentrations of vitamins and minerals.
This seaweed variety has been farmed by Japanese and Korean growers for centuries using aquaculture methods. In the late 20th century, wakame cultivation also began in Brittany, France and Tasmania, Australia. It has been available in the West since the macrobiotic diet grew in popularity during the 1960s and '70s.
Dried wakame may be sold either whole or in flakes, while the fresh variety is usually sold whole. Whole varieties of the seaweed require soaking before use in cooking to reconstitute them and reduce their salty taste. Half an hour of soaking in fresh water is usually sufficient, with the seaweed increasing greatly in size as it absorbs more water. The leaves can be removed and chopped, while the inedible stem can be thrown away or set aside for making soup stock similar to dashi. Flakes of wakame do not necessarily require soaking and can be sprinkled on top of many different foods to add salty flavor and crispy texture.
Some varieties of wakame are browner in color than others; these varieties tend to have a stronger salty taste as well as a darker color. Most wakame has a mild flavor that is both sweet and salty, and is commonly found in miso soup. The seaweed variety is also often combined with other vegetables and liberally dressed with rice wine vinegar to make the popular Japanese salad known as sunomono. It may also be added to stir fries, rice and noodle dishes, or served on its own as a side dish dressed with vinegar, miso, or soy.
Wakame is a good source of vitamins A, C, and E and also contains high amounts of iron and calcium. In the 21st century, Japanese chemists discovered that the seaweed also contains a chemical compound called fucoxanthin that appears to promote weight loss in rats by allowing them to burn fat faster. It is unclear whether fucoxanthin has the same affect on humans. Despite the many health benefits of seaweed consumption, most seaweed varieties are high in sodium. Therefore, seaweed should be consumed in moderation to avoid increasing the risks of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.