FOOD & DRINK: THE FULL NORI

What's green and slimy and gets stuck between your toes? Michael Bateman on the latest in haute cuisine
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The Independent Culture
YOU ONLY HAVE to blink these days and, suddenly, a new food fashion is in place. This time it's seaweed.

From the rarefied habitat of Japanese restaurants in the capital, seaweed has emerged into the full glare of supermarket shelves. Waitrose and Tesco are now selling fresh seaweed (dulse and sea lettuce) at pounds 2.60 for a 100g packet. Each pack comes with helpful but unlikely recipes. Dulse and pasta sauce. Stir-fried seaweed. Dulse salad with pesto dressing. Crispy sea lettuce.

Is this so strange? Chef-of-the-year Peter Gordon of the Sugar Club in Notting Hill Gate, west London, is a food trend-setter. The pioneer of so-called Fusion cooking, he was an early convert to seaweed and probably first to hijack hijiki, a savoury, sweetly-perfumed Japanese seaweed. He uses the short, curly strands as a condiment in salads.

And, of course, stylish Japanese restaurants in the capital have set a certain tone, raising the profile of seaweed. The most familiar will be nori - seaweed which has been processed into sheets like fragile parchment and used mainly to wrap sticky, vinegared rice to make sushi.

Even so, it's a long jump to the supermarket shelves. Until now, seaweed's most important contribution to English food culture must have been in Jersey where they spread it on the land as fertiliser to produce the unique flavour of their early Royals.

But I'm open-minded, so I was interested to try Tesco's fresh seaweeds. I washed the dulse as instructed and, at once, the pungent odour of the slippery red seaweed evoked the smell of rock-pools at low tide. The dulse is easy to chew, with a strong marine flavour, very strong, maybe too strong for comfort. A little goes a long way.

The sea lettuce was more interesting, with lovely, pale green, fragile leaves. I followed Tesco's instructions for frying crispy sea lettuce. It was easy enough to cook. You rinse it, dry it well and deep-fry, for seconds rather than minutes. Sprinkle with salt and sugar and eat. It is a brilliant emerald, crisp, lacy frill, and dissolves to nothing in your mouth.

Eating seaweed, of course, isn't new to the UK. The Welsh have been eating the stuff since the beginning of time and they still do - laverbread, otherwise known as porphyra. They gather it along the Gower coast where it anchors itself to rocks and stones on the shoreline. Then it must be washed free of sand, and cooked for up to 10 or 12 hours to soften it, or just two hours if it's young. They roll the seaweed in oatmeal and then fry it for breakfast with their bacon and eggs.

You can buy it in 4oz-cartons from Ashton's the fishmongers in Cardiff's old city market, a ready-boiled puree. Many cooks like to add a teaspoonful to a sauce to serve with sea fish. The Welsh themselves incorporate it into a stuffing for bland-flavoured trout or their native sewin to add a little tangy bite.

The Welsh love it and maintain it does them good, since seaweeds are loaded with vitamins and trace minerals. For this reason, healthfood shops are major suppliers of the dried varieties. As well as the supermarkets, you can also buy seaweed by mail order from Taste of the Wild in Battersea who sell six kinds: dulse, sea lettuce (laitue de mer in France where it's their most popular seaweed), kombu, nori, wakame and haricot or sea-bean seaweed. It costs a not modest pounds 15 a kilo (though you can order 500g) plus carriage.

"Not only is seaweed good for you," says Taste of the Wild's Alastair Lomax with enthusiasm. "But it's delicious. It's the taste of the future."

Maybe. But it's also the taste of the very ancient past. Tom Stobart, who compiled The Cook's Encyclopaedia, described seaweed as "food that the half-starved Irish and Hebridean crofters managed to live on in the past."

Introduced to dulse, which many Irish people on the West Coast to this day keep around them to chew like chewing-gum, Stobart found it not to his taste: "like rubber sheeting laced with iodized salt." Show some respect, please; in 12th-century Ireland, old texts show that dulse (or dhillisc) was one of the important foods, along with butter, milk and bread, that a tenant should offer when visited by the farm owner.

Seaweed has been a subsistence food on every continent since earliest times. Every country has its own ways with seaweed, from Hawaii, where they eat some 70 different kinds, to cold haddock sprinkled with chopped dulse from Iceland, a country whose gastronomic limits may be summed up by the fact they have words for each of 250 parts of a cod's head. (So says Alan Davidson in North Atlantic Seafood.)

But it doesn't do to be dismissive. Most of us consume seaweed unknowingly - it's used in the manufacture of many desserts and ice-creams - and seaweed derivatives called alginates are used as alternative jellying agents to gelatine. Used as stabilisers to stiffen up the froth on canned beer, alginates are also used in petfoods to produce those succulent "jellied" meats you buy for your dogs and cats. No, it doesn't say so on the label.

But real seaweed does have a place in modern cooking. It can add marine notes to the chef's ever-widening palette. The pre-eminent French chef Michel Guerard won immense praise for developing a sea-bass dish steamed over seaweed (see recipe below). And what could be more appetising than oysters served on a moist bed of bladder-wrack (the one with the bubbles that you pop and smells of iodine).

So it is in line with this new awareness of seaweed that writer Lesley Ellis has completed a guide, together with recipes, which Grub Street publishes next month, Simply Seaweed (pounds 7.99).

Ellis, mother of two, was drawn to seaweed by its heath benefits and ended up a convert. So her husband and two children have been guinea pigs for several years as she cooked her way through laver sauces, wakame stir- fries, kombu soups, and salads with chopped dulse. The guide to seaweeds, (right), is based on her book, from which three of the following recipes are also taken.

WHERE TO GET YOUR WEED

Dried seaweeds (most only need to be soaked briefly to reconstitute them) are available at healthfood stores. Planet Organic (0171 221 7171) in Westbourne Grove, west London, sells those from Clearspring, the market leaders. Fresh dulse and sea lettuce packed in sea salt are sold by Tesco and Waitrose in l00g containers for around pounds 2.60. A wider variety can be ordered by mail from Taste of the Wild (0171 498 5654); dulse, laitue de mer (sea lettuce), kombu, wakami, haricot (or sea-bean) lettuce, and nori (pounds 7.50 per 500g plus carriage).

CRISPY SEAWEED TEMPURA

Serves 4

For the dipping sauce:

300ml/12pint well-flavoured vegetable or fish stock

13cm/5in-piece Japanese kelp (kombu)

5 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon caster sugar

1 tablespoon sweet sherry or mirin (sweet rice wine)

For the tempura:

13cm/5in-piece Japanese kelp (kombu), dulse or wakame

1 sheet toasted Japanese laver (nori)

2 tablespoons hijiki or arame

1 egg

312 tablespoons ice-cold water

50g/112 oz plain flour, plus extra for sprinkling

oil for deep frying

lemon slices and a little extra dried seaweed, to garnish

First make the dipping sauce. Put the stock in a small saucepan. Cut the kelp into six pieces and add it to the saucepan. Heat the stock until it boils, then simmer for two minutes. Remove the kelp pieces and discard them. Then add the other sauce ingredients and simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and set aside. Next, cut the kelp, dulse or wakame into very thin matchsticks - the thinner the better. Cut the toasted Japanese laver sheer into narrow rectangles, about 4 by 1cm (2x12in).

To make the batter, put the egg in a small bowl and stir in the ice-cold water. Add the flour and stir to a lumpy mixture - don't try to get it smooth. Heat oil in a deep pan or deep-fat fryer to 325F/ 160C. Put some of the seaweed sticks into a ladle, sprinkle them with a little flour, then add two teaspoons of the batter and mix them well together in the ladle. Deep-fry the little seaweed bundles for two minutes, until golden, turning to make sure both sides cook. Meanwhile, reheat the dipping sauce.

Remove seaweed bundles from the hot oil with a slatted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Serve immediately, garnished with lemon slices, with individual bowls of the warm dipping sauce.

HIJIKI SALAD

Black strands of richly flavoured hijiki seaweed are threaded through green and yellow vegetables in this salad.

Serves 4

15g/12oz dried hijiki

350ml/12fl oz apple juice

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 small yellow or orange pepper

75g/3oz cooked French beans

75g/3oz cooked sweetcorn kernels

50g/112oz bean sprouts

1 medium carrot

mint sprig, to garnish

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar

1 teaspoon water

12 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Place the hijiki in a bowl and cover with warm water. Leave to soak for 10 minutes, drain and place in a saucepan. Add the apple juice and the soy sauce and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, until the seaweed is tender and virtually all the liquid has gone. If the liquid evaporates before this, add a little extra apple juice or water to the pan. Remove the hijiki from the pan and place it in a bowl, setting aside the saucepan with the remaining cooking liquid. Cut the pepper into small, neat squares and chop the beans into smallish pieces. Add these, and the sweetcorn and bean sprouts to the hijiki. Finely chop the carrot and add it, mixing well to combine the ingredients. Stir dressing ingredients into the remaining cooking liquid in the saucepan and heat gently, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Leave dressing to cool, then pour over salad and serve garnished with a mint sprig.

BASS COOKED IN SEAWEED

A thoroughly satisfactory way of cooking salt-water fish; it gives an incomparable depth and richness to the flavour.

Serves 2

1 sea-bass weighing 800g/1lb 12oz

2 large handfuls seaweed

7 tablespoons water

salt and black pepper

Clean the fish and cut away its sharp dorsal fin. Don't scale it.

Put a layer of half the seaweed in the bottom of the casserole and pour in the water; season the bass inside and lay it on top. Blanket with the remaining seaweed. Cover the casserole and cook it over a fast heat for 20 minutes.

When the cooking time is up, serve the fish in the casserole and lift the lid in front of your guests so that they can inhale the smell of the sea. Then, remove the skin, complete with scales, in one piece. Lift off the fillets, season with salt and pepper and place on hot plates.

Michel Guerard recommends serving this with his simple version of a sauce vierge; sieved fresh tomatoes warmed through with chopped green herbs, seasoned with mustard and Worcester sauce, diluted with a few tablespoons of fromage blanc and, on the side, a watercress puree; two bunches of watercress blanched in boiling water for three minutes, drained, chilled and pureed in a blender; warmed through with a dash of lemon juice, a teaspoon of creme fraiche and salt.

STUFFED SEWIN WITH LAVER SAUCE

Sewin is a delicious fish, with a flavour somewhere between salmon and trout.

Serves 4

1 sewin (sea trout), about 1kg/2lb; cleaned, with head removed if preferred

rosemary sprigs

3 bacon rashers

3 tablespoons orange juice

2 teaspoons lemon juice

orange slices, to garnish

fresh rosemary sprig, to garnish

For the stuffing:

1 leek

1 bacon rasher

25g/1oz butter

125g/4oz fresh breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 teaspoons lemon juice

freshly ground black pepper

For the laver sauce:

125g/4oz laver puree

25g/1oz butter

juice of 1 orange

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Set the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. To make the stuffing, finely chop the leek and bacon. Melt the butter in a frying pan. Saute the leek until it softens, then add the bacon and continue to saute until the bacon is cooked but not brown. Stir in the breadcrumbs and herbs and continue to cook for another three to four minutes, stirring to prevent breadcrumbs sticking. Add lemon juice and season with a little black pepper.

Place the trout in a baking dish and fill the cavity with the stuffing mixture. Sprinkle little sprigs of rosemary over the fish. Stretch the bacon rashers with the back of a knife, then wrap them around the trout to pull together the cavity and keep the stuffing in place. Sprinkle over the fruit juices, then seal the baking dish carefully with foil and cook the trout for about 25 minutes, until just tender. Check occasionally to make sure that the fish has not dried out, and be very careful not to overcook it. If the fish is virtually cooked, but the bacon has not crisped up, open up the foil, baste the fish and place the dish under a grill for a minute or two.

To make the laver sauce, put the laver puree in a fine sieve and leave it to drain for a few minutes. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and stir in the laver and fruit juices. Serve the fish, garnished with orange slices and a fresh rosemary sprig, with a side dish of warm sauce.

GUIDE TO SEAWEEDS (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT)

KOMBU (LAMINARIA JAPONICA)

Known as Japanese kelp. One of the sweeter seaweeds, it is sold in dried sheets or packets of strips 5in long. Kombu is used as the flavouring for a fish stock called dashi in Japan. It is chopped and simmered with dried tuna flakes, strained and mixed with savoury salt bean paste to make miso soup - eaten every day by many Japanese families. In the UK we often come across it blown on to the beach after a storm.

HIJIKI

Glossy, black, richly-flavoured seaweed, sold dried and shredded. Soak for 10 minutes, then simmer 30 minutes till tender. Swells to at least three times original size. Its texture is not dissimilar to cooked shredded lemon peel. Add to stir-fries, salads and vegetable dishes. Combines well with oily foods and sweet and sour dishes.

TOASTED SUSHINORI

A variation of nori, see below.

AGAR AGAR (KANTEN IN JAPAN)

Processed seaweeds from the Far East made from the same family as carragheen, and used as jellying agent in place of animal gelatine. Sold in dried strips and sheets. Used in soups as well as deserts and jellies. Agar agar holds the secret to Chinese birds' nest soup. Swallows collect the seaweed, partly digest it and use it to make their nests high on the cliffs of some Pacific islands.

WAKAME (UNDARIA)

One of most popular seaweeds in Japan, used raw in salads. It's a pretty, green, frilly-fronded seaweed but we get it here in dried form. The dull grey strips transform to verdant green when soaked. Soak for 10 minutes, then boil for 30 minutes to soften, remove the central rib if using to wrap around fish when baking or steaming. It adds a mild, sweet marine flavour.

NORI

It was the genius of the Japanese to apply the technology of paper-making to seaweed. It is boiled to pulp, rolled out, pressed and dried to produce thin sheets of shiny, parchment. It is used as a seasoning crumbled on various dishes, or integrated as flavouring in those moreish little savoury biscuits sold in Japanese stores. But it is most familiar in its function wrapping cylinders of cooked vinegared rice to make sushi rolls. Sushi, by the way, doesn't mean sandwich as the restaurant Yo! Sushi recently claimed, much to the irritation of Japanese food writer, Emi Kazuko. She points out: "The word sushi means to vinegar, a key method of preserving food. It's origin is rather unappetising though. In ancient Japan they sushi'd criminals' heads to display in public."

DULSE (RHODYMENIA PALAMATA)

The strongest flavoured of all seaweeds, salty, tangy, chewy. Often eaten uncooked when young and tender. You can chop a little into a salad to give the effect of a condiment.

ARAME (EISENIA BICYCLIS)

Also known as sea oak. Mild-tasting Japanese seaweed. Boiled for hours after collection, then dried to be sold shredded. It is reconstituted in a few minutes, the black shreds turning brown. Use in stir-fries or boil and dress with soy sauce. Looks similar to hijiki but tastes sweeter.

SEAWEEDS (NOT IN PICTURE)

LAVER (PORPHYRA)

Also known as red laver tangle. Its season is June to March in the UK. Buy it pre-cooked as a sieved puree. Make into a ball, roll in oatmeal and fry for five minutes in bacon fat. Sprinkle with vinegar. Or use in a stuffing or sauce to serve with fish.

CARRAGHEEN (IRISH MOSS, SEA MOSS)

Carraigin is the Gaelic word for little rock, to which these pretty mauve and purple, lacy fronds cling. They are bleached in the sun before use. Buy in dried form. Soak for 20 to 30 minutes. Simmer 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and sweeten with sugar, adding fruit flavourings. When it begins to cook and set, whip in beaten egg white or whipped cream.

SEA LETTUCE (ULVA)

Also known as sea lettuce in France, laitue de mer, where it is their most popular seaweed. Delicate, thin, almost transparent leaf. The Chinese deep-fry it to make a crisp lace. Others wrap it round parcels of fish before steaming.

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