Underwater gardens

Green Lifestyle magazine

A growing tide of foodies are looking to the sea for its green bounty – seaweed.

Underwater Gardens

Credit: Thinkstock

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In the winter of 2009 the Madrid congress centre hosted the best chefs and food media from around the globe. Inside, a young chef from a small Atlantic coast town presented a dish of rice cooked in plankton to a hushed crowd. Bright green with flecks of white, it stunned the audience. “As we strip the oceans bare of fish,” said chef Angel Leon, “the demand for tastes of the sea will continue. This is why we must look to other ways of feeding ourselves from the oceans instead of relying on wild catch. We must learn to farm like we do on the land and understand the seas and oceans and respect them.”

That was nearly five years ago. The Global Financial Crisis had started to bite in Spain and people were making concessions, even on the plate. Today, you can find this and similar dishes in restaurants across Spain. Rich, creamy and tasting of the sea, it is truly delicious. It is often made into a risotto-like dish from a broth of powdered seaweed harvested from sea beds and from plankton filtered from seawater.

Much of the seaweed used in Spain is collected in the clear waters off of Galicia where there are almost 20 different varieties. Here, seaweed was always considered a peasant dish, something only to eat if you were starving, or to fatten pigs. Now it appears in Michelin-star restaurants.

Further to the north, the Irish have always eaten, and still do eat, a plethora of seaweeds, from Irish moss and dulse to sea lettuce to wrack. They bake these into breads and stir them through stews, adding essential amino acids and iodine. Across the Irish sea, the Welsh still gobble up tonnes of laver every year. This is a fresh version of a seaweed the Japanese dry to make into nori which wraps up sushi rolls.

In Australia, the move to put seaweed into our day-to-day diet has started. Fisherman are diving the dark waters off Tasmania to harvest wakame for miso soup. Originally arriving in ships’ ballasts, wakame is a Japanese invader that has become an environmental threat. There’s now a hand-harvested pink salt with added kelp. There is a farm in Queensland growing an Asian seaweed in former prawn farming ponds, and Chinese investors are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into creating a seaweed industry in the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. On the western coast of Victoria, marine biologists from Deakin University are exploring the use of native seaweeds as crops to be harvested for Australian kitchens.

One of Australia’s greatest proponents of cooking with seaweed is Michael Ryan from Provenance Restaurant in Beechworth, Victoria. He buys most of his seaweed dried, imported from Japan and Korea. “Seaweed adds different sorts of flavour and texture to all sorts of dishes,” he says. “Although it looks so different, we really should see it as just another vegetable.”