WANDO, South Korea—If there’s such a thing as a mecca for seaweed lovers, it’s in South Korea.
At the recent international seaweed expo in the small fishing town of Wando in southwestern Korea there was plenty of the slimy stuff to eat, spread on one’s body or even use as a fuel for cars.
One of the biggest draws was a kiosk for sea mustard-infused green ice cream, topped with extra helpings of dried kelp.
Sea mustard, a type of seaweed, isn’t just there for the taste. “Unlike other ice creams that normally start to melt in 15 minutes, this one lasts for almost an hour,” explained vendor Kim Sung-hee. “The secret is an edible ingredient that can’t be disclosed plus sea mustard.”
On the opening day, more than 2,000 people were treated to miyeokguk, a brown-seaweed soup. Organizers said it was designed to mark the year 2014, in which Wando played host to the world’s ‘first’ algae expo.
Algae remain something of a global novelty as a daily diet, but in Korea seaweed (also called marine algae) is taken seriously as an elixir. Sea-mustard soup is traditionally a must-have for mothers after giving birth. The abundant iodine in it helps women restore blood and it heals wounds, Korean doctors say. It is also customarily eaten on birthdays for Koreans of all ages.
South Korea is the world’s fourth-largest producer of edible seaweeds, with an annual output of 850,000 tons, and Wando accounts for almost half of it.
“Wando is the heaven of algae,” said Kim Jong-sik, governor of Wando and chief organizer of the expo. ” For many years, seaweed has been known for its various health and beauty benefits. I want to see all Koreans eat a dish or two of seaweed at every meal.”
Wando County officials said the island also commercialized dried laver seaweed for the first time in Korea about 160 years ago. Called ‘gim’ in Korean, dried laver seaweed has for decades been the No. 1 gift bought by Japanese tourists.
Atsushi Futakami, a Japanese businessman and an expo fanatic, was among the first group of visitors who enjoyed the seaweed soup on the first day.
“I came here at 2 a.m. So, I waited for over six hours in front of the main gate. It was fun,” said the Japanese tourist, who has traveled to more than 150 expositions in Japan and other parts of the world.
Also on the first day of the expo, eight Japanese companies signed a $36 million deal to import sea mustard and other dried seaweed products from Korean manufacturers.
Wando is also the hometown of K.J. Choi, one of Korea’s best-known pro golfers. He no longer lives in the town but says he has seaweed and other seafood shipped over from Wando when he is on tour.
“I tell the students at my golf school to eat a lot of seafood for health reasons,” he said.
The wife of Mr. Choi’s former coach also runs a seaweed restaurant in Wando.
On the second day of the expo, more than 100 people got together to make a 100-meter-long seaweed-and-rice roll. There was also a mass preparation of bibimbap, a signature Korean dish that is usually a bowl of rice mixed with seasoned vegetables. Wando had it a different way—stuffed mostly with abalone, fusiform [spindle shaped] seaweed and other edible greens, instead.
Another less known commercial use of seaweed is as ethanol fuel.
“Bioethanol produced from algae is about 4% more efficient than that from fossil fuel, and it can be used in combination with traditional energy sources,” said a Wando County official at an exhibition hall, where Kia Motors put an ethanol-powered Soul Flex compact car on display.
Kia, the country’s second-largest auto maker, unveiled the Soul Flex that runs purely on ethanol or a mixture with gasoline at a Brazilian auto show in 2010. The car maker plans to produce more clean cars.
For the small fishing town of Wando, with a population of 53,820, seaweed isn’t just a source of income. It is a source of rejuvenation.
With incomes rising among seawood growers on Wando, young people who left looking for decent jobs in neighboring cities are returning.
People in their 20s and 30s now account for more than a fifth of the island’s population—in contrast to other rural communities in South Korea, where residents’ average age is 60 and children have moved to the city.
“I would say seaweed is the future of mankind given its versatility. For Wando, it’s like a lifeline,” said Gov. Kim.
Photo caption: Children use seaweed to make the signature Korean dish bibimbap. In-Soo Nam/The Wall Street Journal
View original article at: In This South Korean Town, Seaweed Is a Superfood