Diverse Delicious Seaweeds of Korea’s Seas

As a follow-up on last year’s post “What you need to know about seaweed” (aka “Seaweed 101”), here is more information about Korea’s edible seaweed! In this post, “Diverse delicious seaweeds of Korea’s seas” [Can you pronounce this tongue twister? 🤪] or in short “Seaweed 102”, you can learn about various other seaweeds in Korean cuisine. Being a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, the country is strongly influenced by its marine environment – visible also in the people’s food culture! In total, there are more than a dozen different species of edible seaweed in Korea alone!

After talking about Korea’s most common seaweeds Gim (김), Miyeok (미역) and Dasima (다시마) along with their cultural aspects, this post is dedicated to the remaining seaweeds. 👇 [More species will be added upon opportunity.] You will find a short introduction to each species as well as keywords on how the particular seaweed is consumed in contemporary Korean cuisine! Overall, the culinary world of seaweed is full of strong flavors and diverse textures!

Korean meal with dishes featuring different kinds of seaweed. 100% vegan. Home-made.

Diversity of edible seaweed in Korea

To begin with some background information, “seaweed” is an informal term used for large algae that live in the sea. 🌊🌿 Algae, in general, are ascribed to the kingdom of Protoctista and are thus separated from the kingdoms of animals, fungi, plants and prokaryotes. Although edible seaweeds are often compared to plants, and they are colloquially referred to as “sea vegetables” (bada chaeso 바다채소), they are no plants. Algae do, however, possess chlorophyll and exercise photosynthesis as well, producing more than 50% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The diversity of algae is immense and ranges from species with individuals bigger than 15m (49 feet) in length to micro-algae discernible only with a microscope (e.g. diatoms). With regards to marine algae that are visible with the naked eye, aka seaweed, there are three categories: The so-called green algae 🟢, brown algae 🟤 and red algae. 🔴 Many of those are edible and serve as food for humans all over the world.*

In Korea, there exist several words for “seaweed”, such as haecho (해초 海草; literally “sea grass”),** haejo (해조 海藻), as well as badatmal (바닷말) and bada namul (바다나물; literally “sea herbs”).

Most kinds of Korean seaweed (particularly brown algae) are harvested between winter and early spring, because they thrive in cold water and do not spoil as quickly.*** [Rotting brown algae becomes very slimy and “melts” when touched… 🐌] Throughout the rest of the year, seaweed is normally stored in sun-dried or salted form. ☀️ With technological advances, freezing as well as freeze-drying seaweed have become additional methods of extending shelf life. ❄️

Fresh seaweed may be labeled as such by adding the syllable 물 mul (“water”) to the name of the specific algae (e.g. mul Miyeok 물미역, mul Gim 물김 etc.). 💧 Not only does fresh seaweed look, feel and taste different, but it also behaves differently when used in cooking! The flavor of fresh seaweed is generally more intense than its dried form. When eaten raw, seaweed tastes quite salty! Cooking seaweed washes out the salt and reduces the distinct, fishy smell which may be perceived as unpleasant or unfamiliar to some people. Even when you soak dried seaweed in water and it re-hydrates, the structure is significantly altered! [If you, like me, did not grow up having access to fresh seaweed, you may be surprised by the differences!]

🟢 Parae 파래

A seaweed that is a common sight on the beach as well as on Korean food markets, is called Parae (파래). In fact, Parae is a name given to various species of Ulva, which are classified as green algae and characterized by their bright green color.**** 🟢 The structure is comparable to Gim (김) because it also has a papery, thin structure and is translucent. (Gim, however, is a kind of red algae and its color is dark brown or purple. 🔴) Despite its foil-like appearance, the texture of Parae is actually rather firm and not too fragile.

Parae is sometimes added to sheets of dried Gim, Korea’s popular roasted sea laver (famous in Kimbap and sushi!). The resulting sheets of sea laver are referred to as Parae gim (파래김), and they contain varying amounts of Parae and Gim. Aside of that, Parae is frequently served as Parae muchim (파래무침): A cold and vegan side dish that boasts of “fishy” seaweed flavor (비린내) and may be seasoned with raw garlic and onion to create an even more intensive flavor experience. Parae can also be used to make savory Parae pancakes (Parae jeon 파래전). There is a traditional [and currently rare] type of Yugwa (유과) that is coated with flakes of dried Parae and thus called Parae yugwa (파래유과). The seaweed adds a slightly salty and umami flavor to the Korean confectionery, which normally has only a subtle sweetness!

🟢 Gamtae 감태 or Gasiparae 가시파래

Technically a type of Parae and belonging to the same genus, is Ulva prolifera – called Gasiparae (가시파래) in Korean, which translates to “fishbone Parae“. 🟢 In Seoul, it is presently most often referred to as Gamtae (감태), although this is misleading because there is another seaweed with the same name.***** Its color is also bright green, but its structure is different: It consists of much finer, long and almost hair-like strands.

Fresh Gamtae 감태 on a market in Seoul.

In Korea, dried Gamtae can be purchased in a form similar to Gim, i.e. as flat sheets of sea laver, but it is less common. Such a dried sea laver is called Gamtae gim (감태김) or Gasiparae gim (가시파래김). It has a net-like structure with tiny holes between the strands of green seaweed because it is so fine.

🟢 Maesaengi 매생이

Fresh Maesaengi 매생이 in water.

Maesaengi (매생이) is the Korean name of Capsosiphon fulvescens, which is another kind of green algae. 🟢 This species of seaweed has a composition resembling fine hairs or strings of silk. Being much darker in color than Gamtae, this seaweed can be described as pine green. The texture of Maesaengi is very soft and silky! It is in season only when it is cold outside, basically from December to February.

When cooking with this seaweed, it’s important to wash it properly to get rid of impurities that got caught in the fine strands. It’s best not to heat Maesaengi for too long, since it’s already soft and easily overcooked. Its fine texture makes Maesaengi ideal for soups (e.g. 매생이국 or 매생이떡국) as well as rice porridge like Maesaengi juk (매생이죽) – in other words, dishes characterized by their soft mouthfeel! Besides, it can be added to pancake batter to make Maesaengi jeon (매생이전). Such savory Korean pancakes are rather dark in color and very tender!

🟢 Cheonggak 청각

This seaweed may look like a coral which is dark green but it is actually a green algae! 🟢 It feels wobbly and has a jellyish consistency when you touch it, yet it is not slimy. Codium fragile, or Cheonggak (청각 靑角; literally “green antlers”) in Korean, is harvested already in August or September and hence available much earlier in the year than most other seaweeds mentioned here. Outside the season, Cheonggak is stored and sold in dried form.

Cheonggak (청각) at a market in Seoul.

Regarding its culinary aspects, Cheonggak is primarily found inside Kimchi (김치). As you may know, recipes vary by family, but particularly in the southern regions of Korea, which are close to the ocean, this kind of seaweed is one of the key Kimchi seasonings (and a secret ingredient for some). Although it is chopped up into small pieces that are hardly visible, Cheonggak is valued as it increases flavor, adds nutrition, and helps fermentation!

Kimchi with pieces of Cheonggak 청각

🟤 Gompi 곰피

Fresh Gompi 곰피 at a market in Seoul.

A seaweed reminiscent of Miyeok is Gompi (곰피), and accordingly, its alternative names are Gompi Miyeok (곰피 미역) or Soemiyeok (쇠미역) in Korean. Scientifically, it is referred to as Ecklonia stolonifera. Similar to Miyeok, it is a brown algae and it also belongs into the family of Alaria seaweeds, whose structure is characterized by a strong, root-like base from which a thick stem grows upwards. Typical for Gompi is its uneven, bumpy surface with a dotted pattern and a few holes. (Miyeok, if you recall, has a smooth and even surface!) Since the taste of fresh Gompi is much stronger than Miyeok, people who are sensitive to “fishy” smells may find it hard to enjoy its flavor. The texture is chewy and almost cartilaginous.

Gompi can be cooked in soup to make Gompi Miyeok-guk (곰피미역국). Mixing it with vegetables and seasonings, results in a kind of Gompi seaweed salad (Gompi muchim 곰피무침). Alternatively, Gompi can be enjoyed on its own, by simply dipping it in a sour-and-spicy chili sauce (chogochujang 초고추장). A more special way, however, is serving Gompi for ssam (쌈, small wraps) by using its flat and leaf-like structure for wrapping rice, vegetables or other food into it. Sheets of Gompi pickled in soy sauce (Gompi jangajji 곰피장아찌) can be enjoyed in the same way!

🟤 Tot 톳

Tot (톳) is the Korean name of a brown algae that seems rather widespread these days. 🟤 In the West, it was first introduced via Japanese cuisine, where it’s known as hijiki (ヒジキ / 鹿尾菜 / 羊栖菜). This has influenced its scientific name which is either Hizikia fusiformis or Sargassum fusiforme. The seaweed has a vine-like structure from which elongate “spikes” grow. Those spikes, however, are not hard but springy and hollow inside! The texture is crisp and chewy.

Fresh Tot 톳 at a market in Busan.

In Korean cuisine, Tot is frequently used to make side dishes in which it is combined with tofu or vegetables. There is e.g. Tot with mashed tofu (tot dubu muchim 톳두부무침), and Tot mixed with soy bean sprouts and seasoned with doenjang (된장, Korean fermented soybean paste), which is known as Tot kongnamul doenjang muchim (톳콩나물된장무침). Apart from that, the seaweed can be cooked along with rice to make Tot-bap (톳밥). When fresh Tot is used for Tot-bap, white rice becomes light brown and the flavor of seaweed soaks into the rice, so that it smells a little bit “fishy” and tastes slightly salty!

🟤 Mojaban 모자반

Mojaban (모자반) is one of several names given to a brown algae that is probably Sargassum horneri. In Korea, it is also called Mom (몸) or Molmang (몰망). It is related to Tot and likewise has a structure reminiscent of vines or creepers. Mojaban‘s appearance may remind you even more of plants since the long, central stem grows leaf-like structures as well as small spheres that look like berries or flower buds.

At present, Mojaban is hard to find in Seoul, but it’s available in coastal areas such as Busan and Jeju Island – sold in fresh or dried form. It is the main ingredient in Momguk (몸국), which is a local specialty of Jeju Island. Apart from that, it appears as Mojaban muchim (모자반무침), when it’s mixed with seasonings and dressed like a salad.

🔴 Kkosiraegi 꼬시래기

Gracilaria verrucosa is a red algae that is also referred to as “sea string”, “Irish moss” or by its Japanese name ogonori (オゴノリ). 🔴 In Korea, it is officially called Kkosiraegi (꼬시래기), although the description “sea noodles” (bada-ui guksu 바다의 국수) is mentioned along with it. This seaweed’s shape is as long and as thick as spaghetti pasta. 🍝 But it is dark brown, dark red or green in color! Sometimes, there are a few, short hair-like structures growing on the surface, too. Kkosiraegi has a chewy and crisp texture. While fresh Kkosiraegi is rarely available in a city like Seoul, it can be purchased salted and dried in markets and stores.

It’s enjoyed together with thinly sliced vegetables in some kind of muchim (무침), which are cold salads served as side dishes. Varying with the dressing, the flavor of Kkosiraegi muchim (꼬시래기무침) is typically sour, salty, sometimes spicy and definitely umami! Pouring spicy and sour chili sauce (chogochujang 초고추장) over it, is a simple and flavorful way of serving Kkosiraegi as well. Another dish featuring this seaweed is Kkosiraegi bibim (꼬시래기비빔), in which it is combined with a sauce similar to cold mixed noodles like e.g. Bibimmyeon (비빔면). The long strings of seaweed can be eaten just like noodles!

🔴 Buldeung-gasari 불등가사리 and Semogasari 세모가사리

Dried Semogasari 세모가사리.

Buldeung-gasari (불등가사리) and Semogasari (세모가사리) are species of red algae. 🔴 It’s hard to find either of these kinds of seaweed on their own. Rather, they are usually mixed with other seaweeds and sold as seaweed salads (pickled or dried). Both color as well as shape are eye catching: They resemble miniature shrubs with countless branches! What looks like pointed ends or sharp spikes is actually quite soft and bendable. Their texture is a little bit chewy.

In seaweed salads, which are called haecho saelleodeu (해초샐러드) or haecho muchim (해초무침), the taste of Buldeung-gasari and Semogasari is rather subtle and does not particularly stand out.

Seaweed salad with Miyeok 미역, red-colored Semogasari 세모가사리 and pieces of translucent Hancheon 한천.

🔴 Umutgasari 우뭇가사리

Another red algae is a seaweed called Umutgasari (우뭇가사리) or Gelidium amansii. 🔴 Despite its color, however, this seaweed is more prominent in processed form when its translucent! Because it is the raw material of the gelling agent known as agar, or Hancheon (한천 寒天) in Korean. The dried seaweed loses its color and turns pale yellow.

Upon cooking, Umutgasari releases a gel that solidifies when cooled. The liquid extracted from Umutgasari is widely used to make Umuk (우묵 / Umu 우무), a half-translucent jelly with yellowish gray color. Since this vegan jelly is low in calories and has a high moisture content, it is considered as a diet food in Korea. Its taste is bland, but it has a subtle and distinct smell to it. Umuk is a seasonal specialty of summer and served in refreshing dishes, such as Umuk muchim (우묵무침) or cold soups like Umu naeng-guk (우무냉국) and Umu kong-guk (우무콩국).

A more processed food item based on red algae such as Umutgasari is Hancheon:

It consists of the refined gelling components of seaweed and was modified to be completely colorless, transparent as well as neutral in taste. Hancheon is produced in various shapes and forms, including powder or dry, noodle-shaped pieces. In the modern food industry of South Korea, Hancheon appears as a key ingredient in certain jelly desserts, where it acts as the gelling agent: Old-fashioned Korean jelly candy (jeri 제리) as well as jelly bars with sweet red beans such as yanggaeng (양갱). In this regard, Hancheon or agar is similar to carrageenan (karaginan 카라기난), which is also used for its gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties and is likewise extracted from seaweed.

Colors of Seaweed. Why does the color of seaweed change?

After seeing all these seaweeds with different shapes and textures, let’s talk about their color! 🟢🟤🔴 Regardless of the biological classification into green, brown and red algae, the colors of seaweed are far more diverse and they even change colors! 🌈 When looking at images of seaweed or seeing it first hand, you may be confused by the colors. The same kind of seaweed appears in different colors depending on the stage, freshness and part of the structure! When cooking with seaweed, you will notice that fresh seaweed has a different color than dried, blanched and cooked seaweed. (Even seaweed past the expiration date changes color!) That is because sunlight, dehydration, oxygen as well as heat affect the color of seaweed.

A simple example of this is the process of cooking brown algae: You will immediately observe that the brown color turns bright green once the seaweed touches the hot water. 🟤➡️🟢 When cooked for a longer time, the seaweed eventually becomes a dull yellow-green or brown. 🟢➡️🟤 A comparable reaction takes place when cooking plants like spinach and broccoli, which also owe their green color to chlorophyll. At first, the green color brightens, but after exposing the vegetables to too much heat for a long time, the green is lost. 🥦➡️🥀 [Over-cooked broccoli… 🤢] The pigments of the chlorophyll break down due to the heat, so the leftovers look brown.
[Btw, the development of autumn leaves is related to the decrease of chlorophyll, too! 🍃➡️🍂]

Before this gets more complicated and even longer, let me briefly conclude here… [Who’s up for another seaweed-themed post in the future? 😉]

As you have seen, Korean cuisine features many different kinds of colorful and flavorful seaweed! As opposed to spirulina and chlorella, algae which are nowadays promoted as dietary supplements for health and food enthusiasts in the Western world, Korea has traditionally enjoyed various types of algae for culinary reasons AND because of their nutritional value! 😋🍽🌿
[Spirulina, by the way, belongs to the so-called bluegreen algae which are actually bacteria! 🔵]

Now, do you have any questions? Feel free to ask if you want to know more about Korean seaweed! Also, you are welcome to share your personal experience with seaweed here! Simply comment below or send a message via Instagram! 👇💌✍️

Sea coast with seaweed. Geoje Island (거제도), February 2021.
Notes from the author

*) Regions known for their consumption of seaweed are for example Northern Europe (Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales), East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) and Polynesia (Hawaii).

**) Confusingly, the same word haecho (해초) is also the Korean name of the plant seagrass.

***) There are regions in Korea where cold currents allow growing brown algae all year round, e.g. Bogil Island (보길도).

****) In Korea, about 17 different species of Ulva are known and referred to as Parae (파래), e.g. Ulva prolifera, Ulva pertusa, Ulva intestinalis. [Korean source]

*****) Gamtae (감태) is also used for the brown algae Ecklonia cava.

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