IF you go down to the shore today, you’ll be greeted by a big surprise. Actually, scratch that. ‘Surprise’ is not quite the right word. ‘Treasure’ might be more apt as, more and more, Irish people are realising the myriad uses and health benefits of seaweed.
In recent years, seaweed has gone mainstream as an ingredient not just in restaurants but in supermarkets and in homes. Michelin-starred chef JP McMahon is a long-time advocate of local, seasonable, and sustainable food and seaweed ticks all the boxes.
He points out that it predates the potato and believes seaweed to be the backbone of west of Ireland cuisine. He uses it in soups, breads, and desserts and says it should be Ireland’s new national vegetable.
He is not alone. Prannie Rhatigan, a GP, author, and seaweed pioneer, has a lifetime’s experience of gathering and eating what has been described as the ocean’s superfood.
Her award-winning book, Irish Seaweed Christmas Kitchen, not only offers a range of uses for seaweed that you might not have considered — as an ingredient in mince pies, for instance — but outlines some of its many health benefits.
“Apart from tasting great and giving superb texture to food, seaweeds contain everything nutritious except excess calories,” she writes.
It is a powerhouse of nutrients and is rich in minerals, vitamins, trace elements, and the unique seaweed polysaccharide fucoidan, which can help cut the risk of cancer. Seaweed also contains very specific compounds that are being studied globally to assess how they can contribute to heart health and combat a range of conditions including cancer, obesity, inflammation, and diabetes.
Emeritus Professor of Botany at NUI Galway Michael Guiry takes up the story. He set up the wonderfully informative seaweed.ie in 1996 to encourage interest in seaweeds and its uses in Ireland. Now, the site gets about a million page views a year.
He says that, nutritionally, sea-vegetables are as good as any land vegetable and, in some cases, have higher vitamin, trace element, and even protein content. As food tastes change and expand, the use of sea vegetables will increase here, and in Europe over the next two decades, he predicts.
The main species used here are dulse, or dillisk, various kelps and wracks as well as carrageen moss, which is often sold dried for cooking or as a remedy for colds and flu, he explains.
“While dulse and carrageen moss are worthy sea-vegetables with a history of utilisation and a small but proven market, other species also show considerable promise,” he tells
“Our kelp resources are considerably under-utilised,” he says, adding that all Irish kelp species are edible. Saccharina latissima (commonly known as sugar kelp or Atlantic kombu) is probably the most palatable as it has a sweet taste and cooks better.
Two other brown algae with potential as food are also becoming popular: Himanthalia elongata, known in some places as Thongweed or Ríseach in Irish, and Alaria esculenta, also known as Dabberlocks or Murlins, he adds.
“‘Sea spaghetti’ (Himanthalia elongata) makes a surprisingly fine accompaniment to a mixed salad after soaking it in water. It does not have a strong seaweedy taste that some dislike. Plants are easy to collect but must be dried quickly and packaged well to preserve their excellent taste and mouthfeel,” Prof Guiry says.
But you don’t have to be an expert on seaweed to enjoy the benefit of sea vegetables as a growing number of Irish producers are bringing organic seaweed to market. Several businesses hand-harvest seaweed sustainably and sell it to those who like the taste or are interested in boosting their health.
Irish companies also use seaweed for other purposes. For example, the Higgins family in Coleraine first discovered the benefits of Irish seaweed while talking to an old man who regularly collected seaweed from the north-eastern Atlantic coast.
On his advice, they tried a seaweed soak and found it wonderful for aching limbs. They went on to set up Emerald Isle Organic Irish Seaweed and now produce seaweed as supplements, cooking, gardening, and bath products.
If you are holidaying at home this year, make sure to go down to the sea today and discover some of the bounties that are on our shoreline.
For more, see seaweed.ie