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Seaweed - a super plant, not necessarily a super food

What’s slimy, a bit smelly, and all the rage in fashionable kitchens? Seaweed." Alice-Azania Jarvis - The Guardian

Seaweed has been on my post ideas list for some time now. I think it first got there from an Ottolenghi recipe for something that included dulse. I had no idea what dulse was so I looked it up and found that it was a kind of seaweed, Being vaguely aware that seaweed was becoming a thing, I slotted it away to be looked at. Then last week The Guardian had an article on the world's most sustainable foods and seaweed was one of them. So today I am on to it. I began with ancient Wales, and ended with CSIRO, so here is my somewhat superficial breeze through the world of seaweed.

I began, as usual with Wikipedia which pointed out that seaweed roughly falls into three main groups - red, green and brown - which doesn't necessarily equate to the colour they end up as after processing. It also pointed out that it's the Asians who consume it most as a food. Well we knew that.

But as I said I began in Wales, because I knew that the Welsh ate seaweed. It was a habit regarded by the English as somewhat weird I think. In Wales - and actually in Ireland, Scotland and Northern England - they have been gathering and eating seaweed for centuries - what they now call dulse in the north, and what the Welsh call lawr (laver) in Wales.

"while in Japan they developed a delicate way of stripping laver seaweed down to make intricate sushi sheets, we, in Wales, simply battered the seaweed into submission by boiling it to death." Pembrokeshire Beachfood Company

So I dug out Theodora Fitzgibbon's book on Welsh food, from where this vintage photograph above comes from. It shows the seaweed draped over specially built supports to dry. For they wash it thoroughly of all the sand and creatures and other stuff clinging to it; dry it and then boil it for up to 10 hours until it becomes a somewhat slimy, gelatinous mass which is made into laver bread - and no, that's not bread, although these days some adventurous cooks do put some into bread.

This is laver bread. The laver is formed into cakes, rolled in oats (another of those British best sustainable foods) and fried to be served with the traditional British hot breakfast of bacon and eggs. The Welsh also make it into a sauce to have with your roast lamb - laver mixed with bitter orange juice, butter and some gravy from the lamb.

The taste of laver is one of those things apparently that you either love or hate, or one of those acquired tastes that you grow into - or don't as the case may be.

"Laver seaweed has a high iodine content that gives it a distinctive marine olive flavour, it is not always a food you will fall in love with straight away - it’s a grower. It needs time to take it all in ... Sometimes you just have to let nature speak for itself and that is what we do with Welshman’s Caviar." The Pembrokeshire Beachfood Company

Now I didn't have to include the above picture, but I just loved the quirkiness of their food truck/cafe - which is apparently a seasonal thing. The rest of the year they process the seaweed, and various other things and sell them. They are worth a post of their own some day I think.

I should also say that although iodine is definitely good for you, too much is definitely not.

But I ramble. I then checked out the main foodie seaweeds - well the Japanese ones, plus a couple of others. Nori is the most well-known, and is actually a different variety of laver. But as the Beachfood guy so rightly says, the Japanese dry it rather than boiling it. Nori is the stuff you can buy in your local supermarket in sheets, and which is used to roll around sushi.

It can also be flaked and made into Nori sesame butter or, as a sort of sushi alternative - Spicy Seattle tuna rolls

Kombu is the prime ingredient in dashi stock and therefore essential to Japanese food. It can also be made into a tea called kombucha, which, in spite of the name, is not kombucha as we know it. Go figure.

Then there is wakame which is used in miso soup, - or as an example of modern trendy seaweed food - in Seaweed and tofu beignets.

Ogonori is made into agar-agar which vegetarians use instead of gelatine. Umibudo, (sea grapes) unlike most seaweed is sold and eaten fresh, and then there is hijuki about which I know nothing.

Those are the main Japanese and Korean seaweeds, that probably started the modern seaweed trend and you can find heaps of recipes online for their use.

Dulse - the seaweed which started me on all of this is most common on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific and looks like this. I think this is most generally ultimately processed into dried flakes which then get used like any other spice or flavouring. Hence the ability to use it in all manner of recipes, as well a being added to a butter that is apparently Nigella's favourite.

Finally there is carrageen which is used as a commercial thickener for all manner of products. And here we move into seaweed's real potential. Not as a fancy food but as something that could save the world - well partly.

Top of this particular list is FutureFeed a product devised by the CSIRO to feed to cattle to lower their production of methane by some 80% they claim. I believe it is about to be actually launched on to the scene. You have probably heard about this as there has been has been a fair amount of publicity about it of late. Coupled with the reduced consumption of beef this really could help the world in it's climate change battles as methane is responsible for more Greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

Seaweed is currently helping some Balinese get an income after the collapse of the tourist industry. Growing seaweed was an industry begun in the 1980s, but put aside during the tourist boom and to which those lucky enough to have large families to help with the intensive labour involved, and also a property that is allowed to be used for seaweed farming, have been able to turn until tourism returns. This seaweed is not for food - it's for all the many industrial uses to which seaweed can be put.

"Like any plant, seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide, but it can also reduce the acidification of the ocean, enabling microorganisms and sea life to flourish. It also relies on nitrogen and phosphate to grow, so there is potential to grow seaweed in areas where there is agricultural runoff … and convert those pollutants into nutrients." The Guardian

Jamie Oliver also said it helped him lose a lot of weight more quickly, because although it is nutritious it is also rich in fibre so fills you up and prevents you eating more.

Wonder food indeed - well actually a wonder plant. Let's hope we don't mess that up as well.


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