Ireland's seaweeds are being hailed as 'the new kale'
Is kelp the new kale? Aoife Carrigy talks to the people championing antioxidant-rich marine algae as it finally enters the mainstream
Food trends may come and go, but it's not often we get the chance to embrace a whole new category of natural ingredients that offer a huge diversity of flavour, colour and texture as well as rich nutritional benefits and even convenient culinary applications.
A quick glance at the range of new products that are tapping into the versatility of edible seaweeds - or sea vegetables as their advocates prefer to call them - confirms that this previously under-utilised resource is finally having its day.
In Donegal, Sliabh Liag Distillery have launched a seaweed-flavoured gin, An Dúlamán, while Milseog na Mara are introducing a range of seaweed-based desserts. Meanwhile, Galway-based Smartbake have developed a seaweed blend for professional bakers that helps keep bread fresher for longer while adding flavour and nutrients.
Sea vegetables are increasingly entering the mainstream, and can now be found on the shelves of supermarkets across the country. SuperValu has seen a diverse range of Irish companies coming through their Food Academy programme with seaweed-focussed products. These include milled seaweed seasonings and blends from Connemara Organic Seaweed Company; flaked kelp, alaria and dulse and dried sea spaghetti from This is Seaweed; and dried, toasted and smoked seaweed seasonings in convenient sprinkler tubs from The Laughing Oyster.
Other innovative products include a seaweed-based wholemeal bread mix and seaweed flapjack (below right) from Sea of Vitality in Dungarvan, meat-free vegan chorizo, wakame sausages, sea pudding and even sea burgers from Roaring Water Sea Vegetables Co in Cork.
SuperValu are not the only retailer recognising that seaweed is worth paying attention to.
"In 2016, we saw seaweed feature prominently on restaurant menus," says Katie Squire, a product developer who was responsible for creating Marks & Spencer's new Aromatic Seaweed Stir Fry with ready-to-cook seaweed, red peppers, sprouts and red cabbage.
"2017 saw a real increase in the number of seaweed snacks on the market, so 2018 felt like the right time to bring seaweed on to the consumer's dinner plate at home."
Of course, the use of seaweed in Irish kitchens is not a new phenomenon.
Carrageen pudding is a very traditional Irish dessert that makes use of our excellent source of milk combined with the natural thickening properties of carrageen moss.
It is the star of the famous dessert trolley at Ballymaloe House, that bastion of Irish country cooking, but is popping up all around Ireland in recent years. The Yellow Pepper Restaurant in Letterkenny offers a Carrageen Moss pudding made with locally harvested seaweed and served with a garden fruit compote.
"It's low fat and delicious," says Carol Meenan of The Yellow Pepper. "It's a great talking point as older customers remember it, tourists love it and we love telling its story."
Dulse (or dillisk) has been popular as a savoury snack (it's still sold in paper bags in some traditional grocer shops such as Ernie's in Galway's West End) or to use as a seasoning in baking and cooking. Chef Jess Murphy of Galway's Kai Cafe & Restaurant uses it to flavour boiled spuds, as well as in breads and carrot cake, while Abernethy Butter have won numerous awards for their popular Dulse and Sea Salt Butter.
One woman who has had a ringside view of the changing attitudes to seaweeds is Dr Prannie Rhatigan, a Sligo-based GP who grew up harvesting and eating seaweeds. Today, Prannie runs regular seaweed walks, talks and demos, which can be booked through her website, irishseaweedkitchen.ie, and with the likes of the Organic Centre in Rossinver.
After the publication of her first book in 2009, The Irish Seaweed Kitchen, Prannie was invited to Noma in Copenhagen to do a demo.
"Once world-renowned forward-thinking chefs like Rene Redzepi became interested, the appetite for seaweed really took off," she says.
Certainly, there seems to have been an explosion of creative uses of seaweed in professional kitchens. Sligo's Osta Café use nori in their chocolate brownies and pepper dillisk to season omelettes.
In Dublin, L Mulligan Grocers use kombu to thicken and dulse to flavour their vegan gravy, Slice use it through salads, tossing chickpeas with a little lemon juice and dried dillisk, and The Legal Eagle serve a seaweed sauerkraut with monkfish liver pâté.
Prannie is currently working on her next cookbook, The Little Seaweed Book Of Christmastide Recipes, and is finding it a very different experience to write. "With the last book, it was so time- and space-consuming having to explain the basics of seaweed in each recipe."
She finds that people who join her guided walks and seaweed courses are increasingly knowledgeable.
"In the past, a few people might have already sampled a seaweed or two, but now everyone in the group will have tasted seaweeds," she says.
"People are really very familiar and looking for more information rather than the basics."
She attributes the renaissance to our increased interest in healthy living and believes seaweed's popularity will continue to grow as the research continues and its health benefits continue to come to the fore.
Consultant dietician Paula Mee agrees there is a growing awareness of the nutritional benefits of seaweeds. "They're being hailed as 'the new kale'," she says, and not without good reason.
"We think they're a very good prebiotic, so in terms of gut bacteria, they help to feed good bacteria," she says.
"Dulse and kombu are particularly good sources of soluble fibre which is specifically good for feeling full and also helps to lower bad LDL cholesterol. And seaweeds contain lots of antioxidants which are very good for mopping up free radicals."
Despite being low in fat, seaweed is a good source of omega 3, making it a useful addition to a vegan diet, and the likes of dulse contain B12, another nutrient that vegan diets can often lack.
"I think seaweed will go much more mainstream," Paula adds, "but we need to think of new innovations as to how to get into people's diet."
It seems like that innovation is in good hands.