The climate-friendly vegetable you ought to eat
Papkee was farming, not fishing: His crop, clinging to ropes beneath the cold waves, was seaweed, thousands of kilogrammes of brownish kelp undulating beneath the surface. Growing at a rate of 10 to 15cm a day for the past six months, it was nearly ready to be harvested and sent to restaurants.
He pulled a blade of kelp from his line and handed me a long, translucent strip. I took a bite, and then another, seawater running down my chin.
I’d eaten plenty of seaweed salads at Japanese and vegan restaurants, but this was not that. A variety called skinny kelp, it was lightly salty and profoundly savoury, with a flavour like ice-cold oyster liquor, and a crisp, snappy texture somewhere between stewed collard greens and al dente fettuccine.
Chef Brooks Headley, who adds it in slippery slivers to the barbecued carrots he serves at Superiority Burger in New York, described it in an email as “insanely delicious and texturally incredible”.
It was as different from the usual sushi bar seaweed salad as cottony, out-of-season peaches are from juicy, ripe ones from the farmers’ market: a wan substitute for what should be delectable.
Harvesting wild kelp is ancient, but farming it is relatively new in the US; it’s the main variety of seaweed being cultivated here. The technology was imported from Asia and adopted here by a group of ecologically minded entrepreneurs who view seaweed as the food crop of the future.
Kelp is nutritionally dense (it’s loaded with potassium, iron, calcium, fibre, iodine and a bevy of vitamins); it actively benefits ocean health by mitigating excess carbon dioxide and nitrogen; and it can provide needed income to small fisheries threatened by climate change and overfishing.
“Kelp is a superhero of seaweed,” said Susie Arnold, a marine scientist at the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine.
“It de-acidifies the ocean by removing nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon dioxide, which we have too much of.”
A feel-good superfood, kelp is more than the new kale. It’s a rare bright spot on an increasingly dim horizon, an umami-rich glint of hope.
“Kelp is sustainable on so many levels,” said Briana Warner, chief executive officer of Atlantic Sea Farms, a Maine kelp company that’s helping local fishermen start kelp farms.
“It’s environmentally sustainable, it’s physically sustaining because it’s so good for you and farming it helps sustain family livelihoods that are in danger of disappearing.”
Ocean scientists call kelp farming a zero-input food source. It doesn’t require arable land, fresh water and fertilisers (or pesticides). And kelp farming has been shown to improve water quality to such a degree that shellfish farmed amid the kelp develop noticeably thicker shells and sweeter, larger meat.
Sweet red dulse, inky alaria and ruffled sea lettuces have fed coastal communities for thousands of years. Traditional Welsh recipes call for frying fresh seaweed in bacon fat, while in Ireland it’s been cooked with potatoes, and in Scotland it’s made into biscuits and bread. Native Americans historically used all manner of seaweed - red, brown and green - both dried and fresh. And of course in Japan, cooking with seaweed has evolved into a highly refined art.
South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world that finds natural kelp forests on its coast. Together with Namibia, we are also the only countries in Africa that have kelp forests.
Kelp forests are found in the temperate and polar coastal regions of the world.
Four species of kelp are found around the South African coast, with Ecklonia maxima being the most familiar, often washed up on beaches following heavy storms.
John Magazino, a product development specialist at the Chefs’ Warehouse, a speciality food supplier for restaurants, explained why fresh kelp is so different from the seaweed you find in most seaweed salads: “Most of the seaweed salads we get in the States are imported from Asia, where they add corn syrup and dyes. Seaweed salad shouldn’t be sweet and neon green.”
Magazino, who finds truffles and caviar for Daniel Boulud and David Chang, has been selling frozen fresh Maine-grown kelp to chefs for three years.
He was on Papkee’s boat to make sure he’d have the quality and quantity of kelp he’d need for distribution to his high-end clients.
“Once the chefs taste it and understand how good it is for the ocean, they all want in,” he said.
I suspect home cooks will too. I returned from Maine with a suitcase full of frozen local kelp and spent a happy, well-fed week cooking with the stuff until I ran out.
Because kelp develops in constantly changing ocean tides and temperatures, its cell structure won’t break down if you freeze, thaw and refreeze it, which makes it convenient to keep stashed between the frozen edamame and the sorbet. (Dried seaweed, like kombu, dulse and nori, are separate products from frozen fresh kelp, and require different preparations.)
Once the kelp thawed, I used it like any other green vegetable, throwing it into smoothies, salads and my soup pot, and sautéing it with garlic and chilli.
One night, I roasted it with potatoes and chicken fat until the top got as crisp as the seaweed snacks my 10-year-old daughter can’t get enough of, while the bottom turned silky soft, like creamed spinach with a saline kick.
But my favourite dish was anchovy pasta with a lemony, garlicky, pesto-like kelp sauce that flecked everything emerald and deepened the oceanic flavours in the pan. Even my daughter lapped it up.
New York Times