By Mari Vold Bjordal, 2016
Kelp – The new vegetable?
We are on our way to outgrow this planet. A fast-growing human population is expanding on the planet’s surface and there is not much space left untouched. There will continue to be an increasing demand for land space to build new settlements and farmlands to be able to feed this growing population. Yet, 30 % of the Earth’s surface is made up of landmass where only a small fraction of it is suitable for farming. We also share this landmass with a range of other land-living species which all need space and habitats to survive. Therefore, it is natural that we look towards the remaining 70 % of the Earth’s surface, the ocean, to support our needs. The ocean has supplied us with fish since the early beginning, and it still is, especially along the Norwegian coast. Still, is there not more to harvest from the ocean than fish and shellfish? In the old days, we acted as both hunters and gatherers on land. We still do this, in a sense, by farming both animals and crops. There is no reason to not do the same in the ocean, by harvesting the marine plants as well as animals.
Kelp and seaweed is popular as a food source in several Asian countries, complementing soups, salads and sushi. The kelp is farmed in large quantities to sustain the demand for kelp on the dinner plate. This does not seem to be the trend in Europe, where the practice of kelp harvesting and consumption seems rather odd for the majority of people. However, this has not always been the case. A Gaelic poem from around 1400 years ago mentions the consumption of Palmaria palmata, a red seaweed commonly called dulse. The same seaweed is described in an Icelandic law book, stating that it is “perfectly legal to collect and eat another man’s dulse when traveling across his property”. As dulse has high contents of vitamin C, it was used by the Vikings as a remedy for scurvy. Channeled and knotted wrack have historically been used as animal feed and fertilizer along the coast. Today, the kelp harvested along the Norwegian coast is used for alginate production for use in cosmetics and as food stabilizers, or kelp meal production for use in animal fodder. Using kelp as common food for humans seems like almost lost knowledge these days, only kept alive by a collection of people with a specific interest in this area.
On the other hand, the lack of common knowledge can be used as an advantage to explore what the ocean has to offer. Kelp can be seen as the vegetables of the sea. They are low in fats and digestible carbohydrates, but high in vitamins and minerals, most even more so than terrestrial vegetables. The protein content is also relatively high in kelp compared to vegetables, especially in red kelp. Combined, these factors make kelp a filling food source, which can be beneficial for use in diets. The popularity of algae and kelp as a “super food” due to the high amounts of minerals and vitamins has also grown in later years. Another interesting aspect of kelp is the high glutamate content, which functions as a taste enhancer, or the fifth taste, umami, as they say in Japan. The fact that our local marine vegetable garden is still fairly unexplored gives us the opportunity to discover a range of new tastes and uses in the kitchen!
So where to find it, and how to harvest it?
There are three types of kelp; red, green and brown. The red and green types are
generally smaller and are more commonly described as seaweed. Brown kelp has a broader size range and this is where we find the largest kelp species. Brown kelp are usually thicker and sturdier, and many of them are found in exposed areas. All kelp and seaweed are found from the intertidal zone to around 30 metres depth where they attach to substrate with a holdfast. They prefer the upper zone of the water column, as they depend on sunlight to perform photosynthesis. Smaller kelp are easily picked by hand. When harvesting larger kelp, a sharp knife can come in handy. On larger kelp, the inner most part of the frond is the newest and freshest. Cut the kelp frond off, but make sure to leave enough of the stipe for the kelp to grow back.
Kelp can either be eaten fresh or be dried for storage and later use. As with normal vegetables, there are different preparation methods fitted each kelp. The larger brown kelp are often best prepared cooked, this makes them tender and more palatable. Thinner species works better fresh in salads and soups, and are also easier to dry. Most kelp tastes good pan fried (obviously, what doesn’t taste good fried?), and the resulting texture ranges from thin and crispy to more bacon like, depending on the thickness of the kelp. The best time of year to harvest kelp is from late autumn to early spring, when there is less growth of fouling organisms on the kelp surface.
When drying kelp, it should first be rinsed with fresh water. They can either be hung in the sun or inside for 2-3 days to try naturally or be dried in the oven on low heat. The time it takes to dry depends on the thickness of the kelp. If you prefer a smoked taste to your kelp, you can dry it over a fire.
NB! As kelp take up the nutrients in the water, including heavy metals, make sure you harvest in areas which are clean and not polluted by industrial waste, highly trafficked areas or other pollution sources. Only pick kelp that is health looking and attached to substrate, drifting kelp should not be harvested.
Dulse – Palmaria palmata
Dulse is the kelp than can be traced back the longest as a food source in European history. It can be eaten raw as a snack or be dried for a chewy snack or fried in oil to make dulse chips. As a general rule, you can use dulse for anything you would use bacon for; sandwiches, pizza, egg and dulse, etc. There is no doubt why dulse is one of the most popular food kelp in Europe, as it is markedly high in vitamin A, B12 and C and the minerals calcium and iron compared to both vegetables and other kelp. The protein content can be as high as 25 %. Best picked in winter and spring, as the colour tends to fade during summertime. The taste is spicy liquorice-like.
Red and purple laver – Porphyra ssp.
Used in the making of laver-bread along the English coast, particularly in South Wales. The laver is harvested, rinsed and then boiled for 8-12 hours until reduced to a mash like substance. It is then left to drain overnight. The next step is to mince the mash and form them into small cakes which can be coated with oats and fried with bacon instead of eggs.The taste is supposed to be mildly sweet and meaty.
Sea lettuce – Ulva lactuca
Sea lettuce is a common and easily recognizable seaweed found from the intertidal zone down to 15 metres. It can also be found in tidal pools. The name it fitting, as its thin, clear green frond resembles normal lettuce. As regular lettuce, it can be used fresh in salads, and also in soups. When dried it becomes fragile and can be easily crumbled over dishes for a nice finishing touch or used as a salty and mineral rich seasoning.
Gutweed – Ulva intestinalis
Gutweed is related to sea lettuce and found in the upper intertidal zone and often in tidal pools where it can be easily picked off the substrate. Each stalk has a hollow inside which makes gutweed crunchy when fried. Make a tasteful appetizer by frying fresh gutweed in butter and season with salt and pepper.
Sugar kelp – Saccharina latissima
A common large kelp which grows in the subtidal zone and might be a bit hard to get a hold of without getting wet. Young stipes can be used fresh, and the taste is rather sweet. Even if it is a large kelp, the fronds are nice and thin which makes them easy to dry or fry. They make a delicious cripsy and salty snack when fried. When dried, sugar kelp is easy to crush into small flakes which can be used as a salty sea spice. It can also be used simply as a flavour enhancer when cooking soups and stews to release the glutamates before it is removed.
Kombu or Oarweed – Laminaria digitata
Oarweed is one of the largest kelp species we have and is found in exposed areas along the coast. It grows higher up in the tidal zone than the other large kelps and is therefore easier to get a hold of. Best picked during spring when the fronds are freshly grown. The stalk can be cut into thin pieces and fried like bacon. Oarweed can also be dried.
Tangle or cuvie – Laminaria hyperborea
Tangle is a large brown kelp
which can normally be harvested in exposed areas. The leaves are thick, but when boiled for about 30 minutes they become tender and have a mild, potato-like taste. Can also be fried as bacon like oarweed.
Wing kelp – Alaria esculenta
Named «edible wing» in Latin, there is no doubt the wing kelp is used as food. It is an interesting kelp because of its high protein content compared to other brown kelp. The texture is rather crunchy and the frond can be chopped and added to salads or used in soups and stews. On the West Coast of Norway, it is usually found in exposed areas in the lower intertidal zone.
As kelp has no strong traditions in European cooking, there are no limits to what you can experiment and use it for. We see today that a there are trends in society shifting the awareness towards sustainability and home cooking with locally produced food. Kelp forests are an excellent source of nutrient rich food which is wild and locally produced. The harvest can be part of a nature experience similar to more traditional activities like berry or mushroom picking and fishing, which many seem to treasure from a young age. One can even think that the more protein rich kelp like dulse can substitute for meat in a more sustainable diet.
There is no doubt that there is still much left to explore and use from the ocean.
~ Mari Vold Bjordal
More inspiration for cooking with kelp:
Sjømat fra fjæra by Stein Mortensen, Arne Duinker and Fredrik Hald (ISBN 82 92496 130)
Anon, 2003. Forests. Missouri Botanical Garden. Available at: http://www.mbgnet.net/salt/oceans/forest.htm.
Bjordal, Mari Vold, 2016. [Photographs] (Private collection from Fanafjorden 27. September 2016 )
Drum, D.R., 2003. Harvesting seaweed; Sea Vegetables for Food and Medicine. Ocean Vegetables. Available at: http://www.oceanvegetables.com/harvesting-seaweed.html.
Duinker, A., 2013. Grønnsaken fra havet. NIFES.no. Available at: https://www.nifes.no/gronnsaken-fra-havet/.
Guiry, M.D., 2016. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae. Algaebase. Available at: http://www.seaweed.ie/.
Guiry, M.D. & Blunden, G., 1991. Seaweed Resources in Europe: Uses and Potential, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Hallsson, S. V., 1964. The uses of seaweeds in Iceland. IV Congres International des Sigues Marines 1961, Pergamon, pp.398–405.
Husa, V., 2008. Alaria esculenta. Norwegian Seaweeds. Available at: http://seaweeds.uib.no/?art=136.
Husa, V., 2010. Saccharina latissima. Norwegian Seaweeds. Available at: http://seaweeds.uib.no/?art=198.
Nekrasov, A., 2009. Palmentang (Laminaria hyperborea), Braunalge, Barentssee. Arco Digital Images. Available at: http://www.arco-images.de/palmentang-laminaria-hyperborea-braunalge-barentssee-bilder-fotos/454358.html.
Nilsen, A.T., 2013. Dette er en delikatesse. nrk.no. Available at: https://www.nrk.no/sorlandet/kom-i-gang-med-algespising-1.11046321.
Olsen, B.R., 2008. Laminaria digitata. Norwegian Seaweeds. Available at: http://seaweeds.uib.no/?art=196.
Rueness, J., 1998. Alger i Farger, Oslo: Almater Forlag.
Sjøtun, K., 2008. Palmaria palmata. Norwegian Seaweeds. Available at: http://seaweeds.uib.no/?art=800.
Sjøtun, K., 2010. Porphyra umbilicalis. Norwegian Seaweeds. Available at: http://seaweeds.uib.no/?art=835.
Tangogtare.com, 2016. Tang og Tare. Available at: http://www.tangogtare.com/groslashnnalger.html.