For countless generations, British cooks have taken seaweed at its word, leaving it discarded on the beach. But changing tastes are elevating the humble algae into a coveted sea vegetable.
Its new fans also include some of the country’s top chefs, who are coming up with original ways to use one of nature’s most plentiful ingredients. Some, such as Stephen Harris at The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, harvest their own seaweed from nearby coastlines, but others, including Yotam Ottolenghi or Brett Graham at The Ledbury in west London, buy it dried.
Their inventive restaurant creations are prompting home cooks to add mineral-rich seaweed to their kitchen store cupboards and fridges. The Japanese company Clearspring had sales of some of its seaweed products, which include five types of nori, rise by nearly a fifth in the past 12 months. And new books feature the nutritious plant, notably Seaweeds: Edible, Available and Sustainable by Ole G Mouritsen, professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark.
Seaweed comprises three broad groups – green, red and brown algae – and is packed with high levels of minerals such as calcium. It is also high in protein and contains natural antioxidants. Researchers from Newcastle University have found that alginate, a natural fibre found in seaweed, can suppress the digestion of fat in the gut – suggesting it could aid weight loss.
Chefs rate highly its deep umami flavour – the savoury fifth taste prominent in Asian cooking as well as in foods ranging from mushrooms and Worcester sauce, to parmigiano reggiano cheese and soy sauce. “Getting umami into your palate is absolutely key if you’re trying to create a savoury, delicious, go-back-to-it sensation,” said Stephen Harris, who finds “aromas of truffles and vanilla” in seaweed’s flavour arsenal. “You just have to know how to use it.”
Brett Graham seasons grilled leeks with some flakes of purple-red dried dulse “to give it a really umami flavour”. He uses wakame, another variety, to make a vinaigrette along with chopped green olives, shallots and chopped steamed oysters, which he spoons on top of roasted turbot.
Scotland-based Mara, which has the only Crown Estate licence in the UK to harvest and sell seaweed commercially, has expanded its range and will start supplying Harrods Food Hall next month. “People thought we were mad when we set up the company two years ago, but we’re seeing a huge increase in interest,” said Mara’s Fiona Houston.
Recent converts include the baker Paul Hollywood, who used one of Mara’s dried blends as a sugar substitute in a crumble topping on his recent Pies and Puds series.
London-based food company Atlantic Kitchen, which sources its seaweed from Ireland, has just crowd-sourced £125,000 in funding for its expansion into ready meals. Ruth Dronfield, the managing director, said: “In Ireland, people on the coastline eat seaweed all the time. It’s not a novelty, but it just hasn’t made it past the coast in other European countries. People like it because it’s incredibly good for you, plus it’s absolutely delicious.” Atlantic Kitchen will launch a range of soups in April, and ready-made salads soon after.
Seakura, an Israeli company that farms red seaweed and sea lettuce in special pools inland from Tel Aviv, has big plans for the UK market. It plans to launch a range of pre-made salads, which will available at health-food shops and Harrods. Moshe Rivosh, the chief executive, said food manufacturers had shown a “high level of interest” in adding his sea lettuce to dishes including sauces and pastas.
Despite seaweed cropping up as a flavour of Pringles recently, not even its most enthusiastic admirers expect it to become a mainstream ingredient. Stephen Harris said: “The problem for home cooks is that it’s still a wild food that hasn’t been tamed. Naturally people are quite suspicious of anything that comes off the beach or is foraged. Many people don’t think it can be something genuinely delicious.”
The Welsh, of course, have been eating seaweed – in the form of lavabread – for generations.
If you are feeling adventurous, or can’t wait to see if these magical weight-loss properties work, the culinary website souschef.co.uk has a variety of seaweed products.
Seaweed dahl with red lentils and sea lettuce
Prep time: 10min
Cook time: 30min
250g red lentils
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
3cm piece ginger,
peeled & diced
3/4 tsp turmeric
1 can peeled tomatoes
500ml hot water
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp honey
50g sea lettuce
1. Wash lentils under running water and drain.
2. Heat a large frying pan until smoking hot and then add oil.
3. Add onions, garlic and ginger to the oil and reduce to medium heat.
4. Cook the onions until soft, add turmeric and stir thoroughly.
5. Continue cooking for a minute or so and add the lentils.
6. Stir and continue cooking for a minute before adding tomatoes, garam masala and water.
7. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes and then add the sea lettuce and honey.
8. Serve with steamed rice.
For more sea-lettuce recipes visit seakura.net