B.C. Indigenous seaweed recipes

B.C. Indigenous seaweed recipes

B.C. indigenous seaweed recipes explores the consumption of seaweed for millenia by coastal inhabitants, and discusses the Kelp Highway Theory that predicts that indigenous people traversed Beringia, the Bering Strait land bridge, from Asia to North and South America through kelp forests (Braje, 2017). Essentially, 14,500 years ago, plentiful kelp forests tempered coastal waves for travel by small boats as well as provided a bounty of nutrients for marine life. Unlike previous theories of passage by foot, the people migrated by boat down the west coast and eventually settled in Monte Verde, Chile, some 58 km inland from the sea (Braje, 2017). Despite the inland discovery, archaeological digs of human faecal specimens found ten species of seaweed (Pryopia, kelp, Sargassum to name a few), confirming the theory.

B.C. Indigenous Seaweed Recipes with Herring Roe

B.C. Indigenous seaweed recipes: kelp and herring roe
Kelp laden with herring roe

On the Pacific Coast, the most consumed seaweeds by B.C. indigenous people are red laver (Pryopia), kelp (Macrocystis, Alaria, Laminaria, Nereocystis, and Costaria), rockweed (Fucus), and sea lettuce (Ulva) (FAO Corporate Document Repository. 2017). Furthermore, many of the kelps, eel and surf grasses are gathered after the herring spawn, harvesting both the seaweeds and the spawn laid upon them. Also, at feasts, the Kwakwaka’wakw boil reconstituted macrokelp herring spawn in cedar boxes and serve them out with special spoons (FAO Corporate Document Repository, 2017). In fact, often in B.C, herring roe laden seaweeds ship immediately to Japanese markets without any available for local consumption, other than that gathered by Indigenous People for their own. I first saw kelp with herring roe in Kauai and Japan labeled as komochi kombu. It can fetch CA$23 per 200 g.

B.C. Indigenous Seaweed Recipes with Red Laver

B.C. Indigenous seaweed recipes: pryopia cakes

Dried red laver from Turner,K. (2008). “Where our women used to get the food”: Cumulative effects and loss of ethnobotanical knowledge and practice; case study from coastal British Columbia. Botany. 86. 10.1139/B07-020.

B.C. indigenous seaweed recipes include many species of Prypopia. The Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida Gwaii traditionally prepare cakes of red laver (Pryopia) by decomposing the seaweed for 4-5 days, then pressing it into wooden frames to dry in the sun (Turner, 2011). The cakes are then layered in cedar boxes alternating with chiton juice (human chewed chiton mixed with saliva) and young bows of red-cedar (FAO Corporate Document Repository. 2017 ). They then weight down contents of the boxes with rocks. A month later, they add and weigh down more red laver for a total of four times before storing for the winter (Turner, 2011). Thereafter, at feasts, the fermented red laver is chopped, chewed and boiled for a long time and served with dried salmon, salmon roe, halibut heads, clams, fat of deer, bear or seal, and eulachon oil (Turner, 2011). Interestingly, prior to the advent of Asian cultivation practices, Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth sold red laver to Chinese and Japanese people in Victoria as a source of income (FAO Corporate Document Repository, 2017).

Furthermore, Turner (2011) describes some modern processing techniques  such as freezing the seaweed in a freezer until the weather is dry enough for it to be properly dried outdoors; chopping the seaweed in a food processor or with a meat grinder; and my favourite, drying the seaweed in a pillowcase in the clothes dryer.

Seaweed Trade and Kinship ties

B.C. indigenous groups often traded seaweed to promote kinship ties; the Gigta’at Nation of the Northcoast of B.C. traded dried pryopia with the Haisla of Kitimat and Nisga’a of Nass Valley for eulachon products (Turner, 2016). Some traded seaweeds for their nutritional content such as iodine; for example, the Carrier and Chilcotin Athapaskan peoples of the interior of B.C, traded with Bella Coola or Nuxalk people on the Pacific coast for goitre medicine (Turner, 2011). Moreover, exchanges continue to occur formally in feasts such as potlatch, informally to strengthen the kinship ties and clan relationships; and also among children to teach generosity, caring for elders and concern for their community (Turner, 2016).

B.C. indigenous seaweed recipes, purple laver
Back lighting through purple laver from Barkley Sound, B.C.

Sustainable Harvesting and Stewardship

As with most indigenous beliefs about stewardship for the land and sea, B.C. Indigenous Peoples harvest seaweeds sustainably in the winter to early spring to allow growth over the summer (Turner, 2011). Indigenous groups wait for winter storms to clean the kelps and eel grasses before the herring come to spawn (Turner, 2016). Eelgrass meadows are vital to fish stocks and carbon sequestration. Furthermore, research suggests that sustainable harvesting by First Nations might increase eelgrass productivity over the long term (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Fisheries, 2010). Only a third of the rhizomes can be harvested in any area (in Spring) to allow plants to grow back by the end of the season (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Fisheries, 2010).

In summary, since the Kelp Highway Theory 14,500 years ago to present day, seaweeds and sea grasses continue to play a vital role for Indigenous People of B.C. Furthermore, through centuries of stewardship and sustainable harvesting practices, their reliance on the nutritional benefits of seaweed and the habitats they provide for marine creatures especially herring, will hopefully provide lessons learned for us all.

Salmon Head Soup with rockweed

B.C. Indigenous seaweed recipes: salmon head soup with rockweed

Fresh rockweed adds a saltiness and light mild flavour to this Bouillabaisse like soup.

1 large salmon head gills removed
1 large onion chopped
3 carrots chopped

4 or more garlic cloves chopped
2 carrots chopped
1 celery stalk chopped
1 large fennel bulb or plant sliced and diced, reserve fronds
1 large onion chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh rockweed (Fucus) chopped
1 large tomato chopped
2 tsp. chili flakes
few threads of saffron
1 tbsp lemon scented olive oil
1 stem thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Cover one large salmon head (gills removed) with water. Add one large onion, and 3 carrots chopped Bring to boil and simmer for 2-3 hours. Strain broth and cool. Remove salmon meat and fat from bones.

Chop garlic cloves, 2 large onions, carrots, celery, one large fennel bulb and sauté in large pan until just barely soft. Add reserved broth and simmer until fennel is el dente. Soften saffron threads in some broth then add to the broth. Add tomatoes, reserved flaked salmon, rockweed, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer 2 minutes, drizzle on olive oil and serve, garnished with rockweed and fennel feathers.


Braje, T. et al. Finding the first Americans. Science  03 Nov 2017: Vol. 358, Issue 6363, pp. 592-594 DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5473

Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. FAO Corporate Document Repository. 2017/10/06. pages 2-8.

Ts’aay’imts Eelgrass: “Candy of the Sea”. Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Fisheries. 2010.

Turner, N. “We give them seaweed”: Social economic exchange and resilience in Northwestern North America. Indian J. Trad. Knowledge. Vol 15(1). Jan. 2016. pp5-15.

Turner, N. The ethnobotany of edible seaweed (Porphyra abbottae and related species; Rhodophyta: Bangiales) and its use by First Nations on the Pacific Coast of Canada. Canadian Journal of Botany. February 2011. DOI: 10.1139/b03-029