Why you should be cooking with algae, the latest superfood

[Global] What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of algae? Is it stagnant water by a busy road, or a long-abandoned swimming pool, with a rather macabre green film floating on top?

If you’re a keen follower of the food scene, you’ll have noticed it popping up more and more in restaurants over the past couple of years. It is lauded by chefs for its intense flavour – a strong umami kick – and its health benefits.

And it’s infiltrating our supermarkets too. Spirulina, a cyanobacteria found in Africa and Central and South America, is increasingly used as a food additive for its nutritional advantages. Full of protein, B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, it can now be found in ice cream, vegan egg substitutes, and protein powders.

A new Sainsbury’s sausage has an algae casing, and sea lettuce is being sold in a grinder for salads. Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market has reported an 11.5pc rise on sales of chlorella powder compared with last year.

The term algae is a rather broad church. From microscopic algae like spirulina and chlorella, to giant kelp, which can grow up to 50 metres in length, a whole world of photosynthetic organisms are classed as algae.

“Algae and seaweeds are true superfoods”, says nutritionist Cassandra Barns. “They’re rich in essential minerals which, depending on the type of algae, can include iodine, calcium, magnesium, iron and antioxidant manganese.”

To Barns, spirulina is the “rock star” of the algae world. “In its dried form, it’s almost two-thirds protein, making it a fantastic protein source for vegans in particular.” Spirulina powder can be easily added to smoothies, or it can be taken in tablet form.

Nutritionist and co-founder of Huel (a meal replacement powder made from oats, pea protein, ground flaxseed, brown rice protein, vitamins and minerals) James Collier agrees. “Marine algae has a number of health benefits, most notably it’s a rich source of the semi-essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. These omega-3 fatty acids are more commonly consumed in the form of oily fish, and are involved in reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

Rick Hay, Nutrition Director at Healthista, highlights the alkalising aspects of spirulina and chlorella, and praises seaweed as a “nutrient dense food”.

For all the talk of fatty acids and iodine, there’s an important factor behind the meteoric rise of algae. “The brilliance behind it is the flavour profiles”, says chef Rob Howell, of Root in Bristol. “Because we’re a vegetable-based restaurant, we have to think differently. Using seaweed and algae allows us to get more obscure, intense, flavour profiles. That hit of umami.”

Howell continues: “We’ve got a dish at the moment, a charred hispi cabbage with seaweed butter sauce, which has become a favourite. It’s not come off the menu since we put it on. Everyone’s obsessed with it. We dry the seaweed out and then blitz it into a powder.

“We make a seaweed vinegar and an oil to go with beetroot. We make a really nice vegetable demi-glace. Instead of gravy or a meat jus, we roast off loads of vegetables with nori and kelp, and reduce it. It’s almost a better product than a beef gravy, which is crazy.”

The reference to nori highlights another aspect of the algae trend: it’s not a modern discovery; people have eaten it for centuries. “There’s nothing new about it”, says Howell, who often forages for seaweed in Dorset, “it’s just a regeneration.”

Chef Ryosuke Kishi, of Ginza Onodera in London, explains: “In Japan, we eat over 50 types of algae, and the benefits are well-known, which is part of the reason we have been cooking with algae for thousands of years.

“Algae’s popularity also stems from its flexibility. It can be used in stocks, salads, main courses and even in desserts. We use it for soups and hot pots; it has a clean and elegant flavour which is less powerful than a traditional meat or fish stock.”

But to Kishi, there’s a similarity between Japan and Britain. “As an island nation like Japan, Britain has a lot of similarities in terms of produce. Welsh cuisine for example traditionally uses algae, so I think it’s a natural progression.” Today, seaweed can be found in a Welsh gin and cheese.

The British may well have a longer history with algae than we think, and Kishi says we’re growing more experimental and rediscovering our love affair with sea plants. “We have a soup called ‘dobin mushi’ that uses kelp stock, which is incredibly popular.”

Howell has experienced a similar response at Root. “It’s really nice to hear people say, ‘I’d never have picked that, but it’s absolutely outstanding’.”

Apart from certain algae like spirulina, seaweed can be easily found across British shores. Most of Howell’s produce is foraged in Cornwall, and he encourages everyone to get involved. While only around 20 of 700 varieties found in Britain are good to eat, they’re easy to distinguish, and, unlike with mushrooms, mis-identification isn’t a huge problem. But, of course, it’s worth checking with an expert before trying for yourself.


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