Move over kale, there’s a new superfood in town. If you follow the health world news you’ll know that seaweeds and algae are the latest ingredient to add to your store cupboard. Whilst you may well be familiar with the dried varieties of nori used in sushi, miso soups and crispy snacks, there is a whole host of edible varieties that can be eaten. As a marine biology student, I find the vast varieties of seaweed to be really interesting, and have a fairly decent understanding of the ecology of the common UK species (fun fact: spirulina and other food supplements referred to as “blue-green algae” aren’t algae in the traditional sense, but are actually photosynthesising bacteria!). However, until now I have been quite new to actually cooking with algae, which seems so silly when I am so often on the coast where there are many species that can be foraged. I got the kick into action when both my hairdresser and mum showed me an article about the Cornish Seaweed Co., who sustainably harvest British species. They sell a section of dried seaweeds to eat, alongside seaweeds for beauty. They also supply fresh kombo (kelp) to Waitrose’s fish counter and sea spaghetti to Tesco’s.
Seaweeds can be quite intimidating-looking, especially when fresh from the sea, but luckily you can buy dried seaweeds from supermarkets, health food shops and oriental shops relatively easily now. If you’re up for a challenge, grab a pair of scissors (never completely remove the seaweed; always leave some of the algae left to grow back) and head to the coast. Look out for leathery straps of kelp and wafer thin sea lettuce.
Treat dried seaweeds and fresh the same; simply soak the dried in boiling water for a few minutes to rehydrate. Seaweeds contain the highest variety of vitamins, minerals and trace elements of any food group, thanks to the environment that they grow in. Up to 25% of a seaweed can be protein, and the red and brown varieties can be high in fibre. Some varieties utilise unsaturated lipids to help them float, but generally seaweeds are low in fat. To help you navigate your way around the multitude of varieties available, I have summarised the key species that you are likely to come across, or purchase from the Cornish Seaweed Co.. Scroll down for a fresh, Asian-inspired combo salad, and a few other quick recipe suggestions.
Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus): Red algae useful as a plant-based gelatine alternative and thickener, as well as a skin soothing ointment.
Kelp/Kombu (Laminaria digitata): Related to the magnificent giant kelps seen off the Californian coast, this brown seaweed has a mild flavour and is traditionally used to make Japanese Dashi stock. Pop it in with your beans and legumes whilst cooking to make them easier to digest. Alternatively, eat dried in the place of beef jerky.
Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata): This brown algae also tastes similar to dried beef -particularily biltong -when dried, but develops a stronger, shellfish like texture as it cooks. Eat dried, use instead of pasta or add to salads.
Dulse (Palmaria palmata): A red algae made popular for it’s bacon-like flavour. Fry as an alternative to crisps or eat pure and fresh.
When it came to developing recipes myself, I decided to drive head first in and try the variety I personally found to be the most daunting to work with: fresh kelp. Being thick, leathery and slippery, this seaweed did not look -or smell -like it was going to be in any way delicate. However, despite it’s robust texture, the flavour of kelp is quite mild. I started gently by covering a frond of the kelp in water with star anise and cardamon and heating through to make a take on Dashi. I cut a scant amount of the cooked kelp into strips and added them to a stir fry to gently introduce my tastebuds. Satisfied that the kelp really was as mild as promised, I then developed this salad that lets the kelp take centre stage a little more, without overwhelming the dish. Serve this salad alongside other Asian-style nibbles or as a starter or side to a protein-based dish.
- 2 medium carrots
- 1/2-1 cucumber
- 20cm long kombu (kelp) frond*
- 2 tsp chilli-infused olive oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp of white/rice wine vinegar
- 1 cm piece of ginger, finely chopped or minced
- 2 tsp sesame seeds
- Using a spiraliser, mandolin or knife, cut the carrots into fine match sticks or noodles.
- Thinly slice the cucumber into matchsticks and set aside.
- Cook the kelp in simmering water for 5-10 minutes and remove. When cool, cut into thin strips, and combine the kombu, carrots and cucumbers together.
- In a small bowl, mix the oils, vinegar and ginger together with a splash of water if desired and drizzle over the vegetables.
- Toss together, and sprinkle over the sesame seeds to serve. Garnish with coriander if desired.
Other uses: use the kombu to make a Dashi and then add miso, strips of the kombu, pak choi, rice noodles and (if desired) a poached egg to make a filling broth. Alternatively, wrap fish in kombu and bake to gently cook the fish and ligtly infuse with flavour. Use the seaweed to aid in the cooking of beans or lentils, finely chop the cooked kombu, and add mix both together with fresh salad leaves and avocados for a nutritious salad.