Seaweed as food: An explainer

[Australia] Seaweed. How much do you actually know about brown, green or red algae? Where can you find it? Which chefs are using it,

and who’s actually using it differently?

As a food source, seaweed – which is actually a misnomer because

you can find it in most bodies of water – is most commonly used in Chinese, Korean and Japanese cooking. The Japanese have been eating keiso (seaweed) for at least 1500 years, and mass producing nori (those lustrous dark-green roasted sheets) since the Edo period (1603 to 1868), when they’d harvest the red algae from Tokyo Bay and dry it over bamboo mats like paper. Today commercial seaweed is an industry worth more than US$6 billion annually.

And it’s very good for you. According to Dr Alecia Bellgrove from Deakin University it’s a rich source of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains a lot of dietary minerals that are often “lacking in Australian vegetables,” she says, such as iodine, iron and zinc. Benefits are reportedly far-ranging: it’s said to reduce the risk of obesity, may help manage diabetes and has potential in reducing the risk and effects of Alzheimer’s.

Beyond Asia, seaweed is found in traditional European, North American and New Zealand cooking. As examples, red algae dulse has been gathered for consumption in Iceland since the 10th century, and laverbread is a boiled and minced seaweed sludge that’s a popular toast spread in some parts of coastal UK. More recently chefs who showcase native, seasonal and often foraged ingredients – such as Noma’s René Redzepi – are using it in the realm of fine dining.

In Australia, cooks and others are using a variety of seaweed species in innovative ways.

Sydney mixologist Chris Hoy, for instance, recently invented a Martini-style mocktail for The PaddingtonFred’s and Charlie Parker’s, mixing non-alcoholic Seedlip with wakame seaweed-infused verjuice. Hoy describes it as “very sodium forward” with an “amazing presentation of the flavour of the sea.”

In Melbourne, Paul Wilson infuses butter with a special seaweed powder and Moonlight Flat dried sea lettuce and oyster salt at Wilson & Market. It tastes like jumping into the ocean (that tingle you get from torrents of saltwater rushing through your sinus cavity), and is served with dulcet dark sourdough bread.

A trip to your local Asian grocer will reveal seaweed’s depth and variety. At Tokyo Hometown Japanese Supermarket in Melbourne’s CBD, there’s mostly variations of nori (in China called zarai and Korea gim). There’s an aisle dedicated to lunch-box friendly packs containing bite-size seaweed slices roasted in corn or olive oil. Flavoured options include Nagai’s teriyaki nori or Hyosung’sgreen tea gim. At Hinoki Japanese Pantry, a refined selection of dried kelp includes species such as kombu and hiijiki.

In Australian waters there are more than 1000 species, almost all edible. But our seaweed trade is tiny.

According to Bellgrove, there’s a lot of potential for an Australia seaweed industry. “We’ve got the highest level of seaweed diversity in the world in south-east Australia,” she says. “We’ve also got the highest levels of endemism. Theoretically all [ocean] seaweed is edible, it’s just a matter of how good it tastes and how good it is for you.”

Bellgrove is part of a team working to identify different types of native seaweed – such as crayweed – that could be adopted into Australian aquiculture.

Some are already doing it. Andrew and Gabi French farm indigenous ingredients at their East Gippsland farm, Snowy River Station, including two types of algae.

Tasmanian wakame, which was first discovered growing wild in the late ’80s, is also making progress. (Wakame is an invasive species thought to have been introduced by Asian trading ships). Kai Ho forages it for commercial use, and Southern Wild Distillery uses it as a base for making gin.

Outside of restaurants and grocers, the other way to find edible seaweed here is to go directly to the source. But Bellgrove warns that people should take precautions before foraging, particularly because some algae, although otherwise edible, “can accumulate toxins” when growing in industrial areas.

“Anything that does live on the coast is quite salt tolerant and hardy,” Mike Eggert told Broadsheet during a foraging expedition in Sydney a few years ago. “It gives it that extra flavour, that salt, which is what chefs want. If you work with it in the kitchen, you might put it with a sweeter dish, or a creamy, rich or fatty dish.”

Eggert often used foraged seaweeds and lettuces at his now-closed restaurant Pinbone, with sundried kelp found along the coast providing stocks with a rich umami flavour.

While foraging seaweed for personal consumption is fine, there are restrictions around commercial harvesting, which differs from state to state.

Adelaide chef Duncan Welgemoed says South Australia began imposing regulations in the 1970’s, largely to restrict winemakers from dredging seaweed for grapevine compost. Today, he says, the same principle could prevent larger players in the food industry from profligate harvesting practices.

“It is a resource, it needs to be regulated from an environmental standpoint.”

Welgemoed forages for seaweed along the South Australian coast for his restaurant Africola, and has used algae in several dishes including his smoked donkey carrots with sea-lettuce tapenade.

In June, Landline reported that Welgemoed illegally harvests his seaweed by avoiding South Australia’s prohibitive $4622 application fee. Welgemoed tells Broadsheet his comments were taken out of context, and that he works closely with the Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA), which waves his harvesting fee.

“They do want to work alongside chefs,” he says.

And chefs like to use it. In fact, Australia’s best Ben Shewry famously quipped on his Chef’s Table episode that he created a sea-lettuce dish in the early days of Attica to invoke the sensation of drowning, inspired by a near-death experience he had as a child. This was – Shewry says on the 2015 Netflix documentary – his “first moment of creating something … that wasn’t a knock off.”

 

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