‘If only seaweed had the same PR as goji berries, blueberries and kale,” says John Fitzgerald of Atlantic Irish Seaweed in Co Kerry. “It needs rebranding if we’re ever going to get it into the mainstream diet.”
ith his wife Kerryann, John runs seafood foraging walks on Derrynane Beach in Co Kerry. Each year he talks more than a thousand people through the basics of seaweed identification and harvesting.
“Afterwards, many of the people on the walks express an interest in including seaweed in their diet,” says John, “but ask how do they do that without joining a cult?”
Ireland is surrounded by free seaweed, but to harvest the nutritional powerhouse you need, obviously, to be on the coast, and the process of drying and preparing it for culinary use requires a certain amount of dedication.
And while seaweed was an important part of the Irish diet before the advent of the potato, and it is now widely eaten in Japan and Korea, these days most Irish people don’t know what to do with it and are reluctant to eat it in the first place, thinking it’ll taste fishy or unpleasant.
The health benefits of seaweed have long been understood and are well documented in Irish GP Dr Prannie Rhatigan’s book Irish Seaweed Kitchen, first published in 2009 and considered the Irish bible on the topic. Seaweed is great for the immune system and packed with zinc, vitamins and protein. It’s also hugely sustainable, fixing carbon and releasing oxygen, and is increasingly being used in animal feed, where it can help reduce methane emissions.
So, if ever there was a crop deserving of our attention, it’s seaweed. And while seaweed farming is happening at scale all over Ireland, precious little of the stuff is making its way onto Irish dinner plates.
In his new book, The Seaweed Revolution, Vincent Doumeizel, a senior advisor for the United Nations Global Compact on Oceans, suggests seaweed should be rebranded “sea vegetables” to encourage more people to include it in their daily diet. Because unlike vegetables, when dried, seaweed keeps for months and loses none of its nutrients. Doumeizel advocates getting into the habit of sprinkling dried seaweed on your food and including it in as many of your meals as possible.
“Convenience is the way forward,” agrees John Fitzgerald. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, some clever person whose job it was to sell cod came up with the idea of the fish finger — no fuss, no mess, no smell. Even now, for one in two people in the UK, their first taste of fish was a fish finger. We need the same approach for seaweed.
“Most people don’t have time to go foraging or drying and milling seaweed, but they’re open to the idea of including it in their diet. There are lots of capsules you can get as a nutritional supplement, but if you want to use it in cooking you can start with a blade of kombu kelp, known as the Asian stock cube. At home we use it in all our cooking when we want a hit of umami. It’s full of natural glutamates. It even goes into our bolognese and makes it more tasty. There’s no hint of fish. Only in the West do we use a stock cube made from what’s swept off the abattoir floor rather than something natural and healthy.”
Sally McKenna’s book Extreme Greens is a great guide to identification, harvesting and preparing seaweed to eat, and she practises what she preaches by including seaweed in her cooking at home in West Cork. But even a seaweed devotee such as Sally recognises the appeal of convenience products.
“If you want to use seaweed every day,” she says, “I would recommend the sprinkles. But putting a frond of kelp in any liquid preparation enhances it enormously. I often buy from Wild Irish Seaweeds, a fourth-generation family business. Most of the small packets of Irish seaweed you buy in wholefood stores and many supermarkets are handpicked by a small coterie of pickers, who work at a fair amount of personal risk, and identify the seaweed by sight. Some producers buy from the larger collectors and repackage it under their own name, but basically this is all great stuff, and, given how hard it is to get many of the seaweeds, due to tides and seasons, it is a very, very good option.
“Two seaweeds that don’t last that long in the packet are sea spaghetti, which is much better fresh, and quite easy to pick at this time of year, and what is known in Ireland as Atlantic Spirulina (aka gut weed). Again, this is easy enough to find, but don’t pick where you see too much of it. In the packet, it loses its colour and becomes wan quite quickly. Otherwise all the kelps are great dried, as is carrageenan and especially dillisk, which is very hard to find in quantity unless you know exactly where to look. When you see nori and wakame in Ireland, they are almost certainly Japanese imports. Wakame is a (tasty) invasive plant that hopefully will not be allowed to prosper here. And despite many efforts, no one is yet growing nori commercially. It’s delicious, and if you see wild Irish nori for sale, a recommended purchase. It is quite different from the processed squares of sushi nori.”
John Fitzgerald is also a fan of seaweed sprinkles, using dulse/dillisk — high in potassium rather than sodium chloride — in place of salt. He and Kerryann cook sea spaghetti as a sea vegetable a couple of times a week.
“The French call it haricots de la mer,” he says. “It looks like pasta. You boil it, rinse it clean and then flavour it the way you would pasta, rice or potatoes. It takes a bit of experimentation to get it right but Prannie Rhatigan’s recipes are a great help.”
At his Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar in Galway, chef JP McMahon includes Irish seaweed in several dishes.
“For me,” he says, “the nutritional density is a byproduct of the flavour. We use fresh sea lettuce and pepper dulse when they are in season. Like all wild food, my advice is to treat it like seasoning — don’t use too much of it. At home I like it sprinkled over scrambled eggs, and in our restaurant Tartare, we use dillisk in our croissants and nori in our potato and leek soup and our chocolate brownies.”
The majority of premium Irish fish and shellfish goes straight to export, and McMahon says it’s the same for seaweed. He reckons the image of seaweed needs a makeover.
“I think there’s a massive demand from outside Ireland,” he says, “because our waters are seen as clean. I think we’re missing a beat by selling as much of it as we do. When I get my kombu from Connemara, it often comes in a black plastic sack. In Japan they are light years ahead — they wrap it as if it were gold.”
Easy ways to enjoy seaweed
1 Islander Kelp: Dried kelp noodles and other seaweed products from Rathlin Island.
2 Blath na Mara: Organic sprinkles, sea spaghetti and kombu from the Aran Islands. blathnamara.ie
3 Wild Irish Seaweeds: Organic food and skincare products from Co Clare. wildirishseaweeds.com