GALWAY chef JP McMahon thinks it should be a national food. Food experts estimate it could create up to 200 jobs in coastal areas. And earlier this month, the Slow Food Festival in the Burren put it centre stage.
Seaweed is having something of a moment, but the increasing interest in one or our most plentiful natural resources is not a passing fad. As seaweed goes mainstream, there is a new recognition of the considerable commercial potential of Irish aquaculture.
Seaweed farming in Ireland might be in its infancy compared to Asian countries, but it’s growing every year, according to Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish seafood development agency.
And the financial rewards are only a part of the story. Seaweed, or sea vegetables as the experts phrase it, is a fat-free, protein-rich food that is good for health and wonderful in all types of cuisines.
Birgitta Hedin-Curtin, chairperson of the Burren Slow Food Festival, has seen the growing interest in seaweed first hand and says that is why the festival organisers decided to invite people to ‘taste the Atlantic’ this year.
The owner of the Burren Smokehouse studied seaweed herself when she arrived in Ireland from Sweden in the 1980s and says she is fascinated by the 450 or so varieties of seaweed on our shores.
“I think seaweed is very much up and coming,” she tells Feelgood.
She said there was an increasing interest in how it can be used in home consumption and that was likely to grow.
“Seaweed is one of the things that is unique to Ireland and unique to the coming-and-up Irish cuisine,” she said.
The possibilities offered by that cuisine were outlined by seaweed experts, foragers and producers — Wild Irish Seaweed and Blath na Mara on Inis Mór, among them — at this year’s Burren Slow Food Festival.
Seaweed even made it to the cocktail menu. Sliabh Liag Distillers from Co Donegal use five locally harvested seaweeds to make An Dúlamán Maritime Gin.
There are also an increasing number of new seaweed-based products on the market. And they are moving out of the specialist health food sector on to supermarket shelves. SuperValu, for instance, has a range of seaweed-inspired products made by Irish producers, including This is Seaweed, the Connemara Organic Seaweed Company and The Laughing Oyster.
The growing interest in seaweed is also good news for health, says Joanne Faulkner. The shiatsu practitioner uses modern food and ancient Chinese medicine to help tackle a range of health issues and she can’t say enough about the benefits of seaweed.
“I recommend eating seaweed every day in some form. It can be sprinkled into stews and, after a little soaking, tossed into a stirfry,” she says.
In Chinese medicine, seaweeds are considered cooling in nature. They bring yin fluids to the body which help hormonal and nervous system function.
They also aid digestion by ensuring the uptake of minerals from food and helping toxins bind and leave the body. This detoxification benefits the liver, thyroid and blood.
Here is Joanne Faulkner’s potted guide to seaweeds and their benefits:
Dulse: Exceptionally concentrated in iodine and rich in manganese. Does not need to be soaked before use and can be eaten raw like crisps.
Hijiki and arame: High concentrates of calcium and iodine. Soak the small strips for 10 to 20 minutes before tossing in a stirfry.
Kombu and kelp: Very good at reducing swelling: goitres, arthritis, rheumatism, high blood pressure, prostate and ovarian problems, blood clots and anaemia. Cooked with pulses and not eaten itself.
Nori: Highest protein content and most easily digested. Rich in vitamin A, B1 and niacin, decreases cholesterol, treats painful urination. Comes in delicate sheets which can be eaten raw or toasted and sprinkled over salads.
Wakame: Good for purifying the blood and promoting healthy skin and hair. Soak for a minute or two, chop and add to salads or buy chopped and add to stews and quiches.
Carrageen: Resolves phlegm, soothes the lungs and large intestine, soothes peptic and duodenal ulcers, mild coagulant effect on the blood.