It has become the ingredient du jour in most high-end restaurants across Ireland and chefs love the stuff, yet seaweed has been around for a very long time. So what’s all the fuss about?
Considering seaweed has been described as the most nutritious form of vegetation on the planet, and we’re living on an island, it’s a wonder we haven’t been stuffing ourselves to the gills with this miraculous food product for years. Despite being around for centuries and in plentiful supply, a great deal of Irish people still don’t include seaweed in their diet. Yet recently, it’s become increasingly popular among Ireland’s leading chefs and has started to feature more frequently on restaurant menus.
In fact, organiser and founder of the Food on the Edge symposium and Michelin-starred chef, JP McMahon, put seaweed centre-stage at his visionary event last year. For JP, it was important for Ireland to get ahead of the curve for once by promoting seaweed to a global audience. JP himself only discovered the joys of seaweed a few years ago, through his Michelin-starred restaurant, Aniar, in Galway. “Through Aniar and engaging with a lot of wild foods I became more and more curious about using seaweed – not just for flavour, but also because it’s an indigenous product.”
JP is hoping that the growing popularity of seaweed is more than just another foodie trend to come and go. “We should try and embrace it as a food, rather than a trend. I do think there are ways we can use it to make it more suitable for the Irish palate. Sea lettuce is very delicate and can be added to salads and starters. The tougher seaweeds are nice in broths.” JP also recommends sprinkling the likes of dillisk flakes or milled nori flakes over your Sunday roast, whether it’s beef, lamb or chicken.
Despite the common belief that seaweed is salty, it’s actually quite low in sodium, while also being packed with minerals, vitamins and containing useful lipids, phyto defensive components and antioxidants. But it adds something else as well...umami, otherwise known as the fifth taste bud after sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
Of course, if we were all to suddenly head out to the shoreline with our scissors and bucket in tow in search of seaweed, we wouldn’t be doing this fantastic resource any favours. As with all foraging, a bit of common sense and respect is required. Seaweed can only regenerate if it is cut leaving several inches on the plant so that it can grow again. If you pull it from the rocks, it will die. The good news, however, is that seaweed farms are a very sustainable form of agriculture and something which might become more prevalent if this trend towards eating seaweed continues.
Known as both dillisk and dulse, this can be eaten raw, fresh or dried and is popular for its salty, nutty taste. It can be reddish brown or a very dark red, with a tough and leathery texture. Dillisk is a great source of protein, calcium and iron.
Uses: it can be nibbled raw but also fried in butter or added to champ, soups, stews, salads, bread and biscuits. It also works well in fish pies and chowders, added to breadcrumbs over fish or blended into a smoothie.
Meaning ‘little rock’, carrageen is also known as Irish moss or carrageen moss and refers to two types of seaweed that are most commonly used as a thickening agent and flavouring in seafood, soups, sauces, ice-cream, jam and jellies due it its naturally high levels of gelatine. Carrageen is only edible after being cooked in liquid, and is wildly available in dried form. It’s known as a remedy for colds and flu, and was traditionally dissolved in milk.
Uses: try Mrytle Allen’s carrageen pudding Myrtle Allen Carrageen pudding recipe.
Kelp is a very common and possibly under-used type of seaweed. Most Irish kelp is edible but traditionally has been used as a fertiliser as well as a supplement for under-active thyroids and goitre, thanks to its high levels of iodine. It also promotes brain development in children and is recognised as a useful product in weight management as it suppresses the digestion of fat. Because of the high iodine levels, a quarter teaspoon of ground kelp per serving is sufficient.
Uses: in Asia, kelp is used to make a simple dashi soup. With the help of some honey and a deep-fat fryer, try turning sweet kelp into crisps. Ground kelp can also be added to sweet cakes and biscuits.
This is a golden to greenish-brown colour with distinctive ‘leaftlets’. Like most edible seaweeds, it is high in calcium and magnesium and is ideal for keeping your bones healthy and strong. It’s easily digested and extensively used in cooking.
Uses: add it to sauces and soups or add to salads. Use dried wakame to make a pesto.
This looks exactly like the name suggest and, given the popularity of the spiraliser in recent times, it fits in well with modern cooking. The fronds of sea spaghetti start off yellow in colour and turn to greeny brown as the plant ages. It’s a popular edible seaweed, perhaps because it doesn’t have too strong a flavour but rather a nutty note.
Uses: it can be added to salads or snuck in to a traditional pasta dish for some extra nutrients. A good one to try out on the kids.
Also known as ulva, this popular green seaweed is found worldwide and is quite common along the Irish coastline. The fronds resemble lettuce leaves, hence the name, and despite their flimsy appearance, the leaves are actually quite strong and waxy.
Uses: It’s mainly used in soups and salads but can also be added to meat and fish dishes.
Most of us are probably familiar with nori already, as it is used in making sushi. It’s the Japanese name for dried edible seaweed sheets made from a particular species of red algae. It is typically used in Japanese and Korean cooking. Much like the process of making paper, nori is made into thin sheets that are then used to wrap around rice to make sushi. It was traditionally thought of as an aphrodisiac and a treatment for gout.
Uses: sushi is the most common use for nori but it can also be used to make tasty crisps and can be added to a variety of dishes to give extra flavour and crunch. Sprinkle it over your Sunday roast before cooking.