Celebration seaweed contest highlights traditional food

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

Black seaweed - laak'ask - has been a valuable resource for the Native people of Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

Alaska families have developed their own methods for drying and flavoring the nutritious wild food. Friday afternoon, it will prove to be a particularly valuable resource for three people who provide three judges with the tastiest sample of laak'ask.

Prizes of $500, $250 and $100 will be awarded for the best black seaweed as part of the Celebration 2002 events. From 2 to 4:30 p.m. Friday, judges at Centennial Hall will evaluate the seaweed's taste and texture and the quality of the drying process.

"It grows on the rocks and it's harvested in the spring - there's winter black seaweed and spring," said Don Bremner of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which sponsors Celebration.

"The trick is getting out there at the right time of year," he said. "There's a certain time to gather it; later it changes. Then you hope there's enough sunshine to dry it. It's best when it's dried in the sun."

Helen Watkins of Juneau remembers asking her mom for snacks of laak'ask when she was a girl. The dried seaweed was pressed into a square wooden box and came out looking like a slab of bacon, she said.

"She would cut a wedge off it with a knife and we'd just chew it, rip it off and eat it all day," she said.

Black seaweed is translucent green when fresh and grows in filmy blades with ruffled borders. It is about 2 inches wide and about 20 inches long and darkens to black as it dries. It is closely related to Japanese nori seaweed, which is a billion-dollar aquaculture industry in that country. It is rich in calcium, iron and iodine and vitamins A and C.

Black seaweed grows throughout Southeast Alaska but is most abundant on the Outer Coast. It ranges from the Aleutians to Northern Washington and west to Kamchatka. Watkins said she harvests and dries red seaweed because the black is not abundant in Juneau-area waters.

The fresh seaweed is gathered at a minus tide and dried in the sun on sheets. Some people dry it right away, others let it soak overnight to soften it. Bits of kelp and other seaweed are cleaned off the blades of seaweed as it dries.

After it is dried, pieces are dipped into a solution of water and flavorings, which can include sugar and salt, clam juice and finely minced clams. When it has almost dried again, it is put through a grinder. It is stored in a variety of ways, sometimes with bits of other wild plants layered in. Subtleties in the process affect the chewiness, the texture and tenderness.

"Each community and person has their own methods of drying it," Bremner said. "They have their own flavors. (Seaweed from) Yakutat tastes totally different from Hydaburg."

Bremner said it is used in recipes and served with boiled fish, boiled salmon eggs, in salads and even mixed with modern foods. It can be used like a spice or as a snack or a side dish.

"More is best," he said. "Nobody eats just a little."

Each participant must gather the seaweed, prepare it and submit at least a quart-sized bag, Bremner said. The samples were submitted last week.

"The surplus will be donated to urban elders because they don't have as much access as the villagers," he said.

People take their seaweed recipes seriously, Bremner said.

"They don't take gramma or grampa's recipe lightly," he said. "They always relate to who taught them, that's what it's about. And that's what Celebration is about."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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