Full of flavor, high in nutrients, easy to grow, and good at keeping humans and oceans healthy, seaweed is a strong contender for the greatest superfood.
It has long been a part of diets in coastal food cultures, from the Western Isles of Scotland to Japan. Fast-growing, needing few inputs, and thriving in water with rapidly flowing currents, seaweed provides nutrients that land plants don’t have in the same levels or the same proportions.
Though it’s still harvested from the wild, large-scale seaweed farming also happens to be good for the planet—it cleans up nitrogen-based pollution from the waters where it grows, and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Environmentalist Tim Flannery suggested that seaweed farms could play a key role in combating the growing climate crisis.
There are hundreds of edible varieties of seaweed, each with its own texture and flavor, among them nori, the red seaweed that’s dried into thin, crackly sheets and used in many sushi dishes; Welsh laver, eaten with bacon and buttered toast; and dulse, which contains every trace element required by humans.
Those of us who associate seaweed with the slimy stuff that wraps itself around our ankles at the beach may be pleased to know that it also comes in less ugly, more processed forms, including a seasoning that you can sprinkle on food.
But how does it taste? Packed with the essence of the ocean with less of the salt, it’s great at enhancing any dish’s existing flavor. As Geoff Carkner, executive chef at Allegro at the Westin Melbourne explains, ‘There are five tastes that humans can detect: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, and seaweed is a great source of umami. This is a rich savoriness that induces salivation and leaves you wanting more.’
Seaweed brings out the heart of a dish, as well as adding an exciting and unexpected burst of flavor, says Carkner, who uses wakame, a tender dark-green seaweed, and kombu, a type of kelp, to enhance the flavor of broth-based seafood dishes.
Matthew McCool, former chef de cuisine at Starfish Bloo in Bali, concurs. ‘Putting seaweed into a light chicken broth instantly adds a new dimension,’ he says, recommending an experimental approach with the variety of textures available.
‘All seaweed is different, some varieties are dried and some are super-fresh,’ McCool says. ‘I would recommend using seaweed as a seasoning—if you’re making homemade crackers, add seaweed salt to the mix before baking. It’s a great match.’
‘Learn some basics, then experiment away,’ Carkner adds. ‘Sometimes we pickle the wakame, which makes a nice garnish for salads. We put wakame in dumplings. You could also toast some nori sheets over a flame to create a crispy garnish, or get a bit fancier and make a gel with seaweed agar-agar to serve with seafood dishes.’
Rich in iodine and iron, seaweed is also high in omega-3, the fatty acids that we’re always being told to eat more of. Chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver calls it ‘the most nutritious vegetable in the world’ and has credited his 28-pound weight loss in three months in 2015 to introducing seaweed and other healthy ingredients into his diet. Research from the UK’s Newcastle University backs up the TV chef’s weight-loss claim, showing that alginates—seaweed fibers—stop the body from absorbing fat.
So, does Carkner use seaweed-infused broth as a healthier substitute for traditional meat-based stock? ‘The seaweed is there for flavor and taste rather than as a healthy replacement, but it just so happens to contain a lot of health benefits,’ he says. ‘Certainly it is a flavorful ingredient that can be used in a variety of ways. It doesn’t necessarily need to replace something, as it can be added to a dish or even be the star ingredient.’
How do you like to use seaweed in your cooking? Share your tips on Twitter with #momentumtravel.