How and why each type of algae is a delicacy
Algae have long since held a special place in Japanese cuisine for me. Sushi, for example, are wrapped in leaves of dried nori algae and some wakame algae are always circling around in my miso soup. But, from a purely culinary standpoint, these have been my only seaweed encounters. About a year ago, the New York Times posed a question in a fascinating article “Is Kelp the New Kale?” - we all know that Americans are crazy about everything to do with kale, and kelp is an English name for seaweed. American chefs are continuing to discover the vegetables of the sea. At first, in my kitchen, they played no role whatsoever. This remained the case until I visited an organic fair in Berlin.
The fair revolved around all things vegan, vegetarian and, above all, sustainable. I did not know much about algae, except that, in many cases, it grows faster than anything we grow on land, and that it is very healthy. I discovered a small company from France that offered seaweed salad. Most of these salads were associated with the cuisine of a particular country or region; so, in addition to Mediterranean creations, there were also Asian and Oriental salad variations to try. And they all tasted terrific. Initially still hesitant, I wanted to categorize algae as a passing fad, rather than a culinary trend. That changed, however, the more I learned about it. And especially after I continued to try culinary creations made from algae.
Not all algae variants are created equal
There are more than ten thousand different algae in the world. When you consider that more than 70% of our Earth is covered in water, this number might not seem so large, but what connects these diverse varieties of algae is that they produce oxygen. They contain considerable amounts of minerals and vitamins and are often rolled into the same category as “super foods”. It’s no wonder then that, in earlier times, algae were used by people living in coastal regions for medicinal purposes. Long before sauerkraut, seafarers resisted the onset of scurvy – a condition caused by a deficiency of vitamin C – by chewing algae. Nowadays, industry especially relies on algae. Alginate replaces animal gelatin in gummy bears and Omega-3 fatty acids extracted from algae are even in used in baby foods. All this, from tiny, little microalgae.
While many of us have already come across microalgae, we probably have not encountered macroalgae. Red, brown and green seaweed is macroalgae. Common types include arame, sea lettuce, kombu, dulce and wakame. While most of them come from Asia, you can find dulce, also known as linnaeus, and sea lettuce growing along European coastlines. For example, along the Scottish coast, which I visited some time ago.
Together with a chef, I stood on the rocky beach. We wanted to collect small sea snails that would be prepared later in the kitchen. They are found in large groups in the small pools of water that remain at low tide. And kelp is also plentiful. This was probably the first time I had taken a specific look at the different types of seaweed. Bladderwrack, which is a thick, fleshy algae, and brown algae, which is delicate and fan-like. The beach is covered with seaweed. Of course, I wanted to know whether it would all be left lying around, or whether it could be used in the kitchen. “No, we are not going to be making anything with that in the kitchen” was the response. In the past, there had been an old woman who would collect the kelp sometimes, but today no one is interested.
While seaweed is cultivated in farms in Asia and exported all over the world, off the coast of the Scottish Highlands it is just lying around.I discovered some strap kelp, also known as sea spaghetti, and just had to try it. This type of kelp has a fine, mild flavor that tastes of the sea, a bit like an oyster. There are also hints of other spicy flavors, which cannot be simply described as salty. The taste goes deeper and is almost meaty.
Everyone's talking about umami
At the beginning of the last century, the familiar tastes of sweet, salt, bitter and sour were joined by a fifth taste — umami. A Japanese researcher coined the term, which literally translates as a “full or delicious taste”. But what makes a dish or an ingredient delicious? The secret is glutamic acid, an amino acid notably present in cheese, meat, tomatoes and fermented products. It is one of the reasons why nearly everyone loves pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. It is even present in breast milk. And, also in seaweed. Especially in kombu. In Japan, kombu is the main ingredient, in addition to flakes of dried fish or shiitake mushrooms, of dashi broth. The kombu that you can buy in Asian shops here releases glutamic acid while cooking and makes a strong and aromatic broth. It is not easy to define this taste: we lack a clear designation. A lemon tastes sour, a radish tastes bitter, soy sauce is salty, and caramel is sweet. The taste of umami is described as the taste of steak or parmesan cheese. Not at all simple to define.
Let's try out different types of algae!
Each type of algae is a delicacy. When it comes to eating algae, a seaweed salad was my first significant experience. A velvety sauce made from ginger and sesame harmonized perfectly with the algae and diced carrots. This salad was so delicious that it inevitably rooted itself into my gastronomic memory. I wanted to be able to make it at home. Algae such as arame, dulce and seaweed salad can be found in every good health food store, in the form of dried seaweed. Wakame, which I use for the pasta dish (and, of course, for my miso soup), is stocked in Asian supermarkets. Wakame, too, can be found in dried form. While the dried seaweed is soaking, its volume expands enormously. Don’t be tempted to increase the quantities given here.
Salad with arame, sea fennel and ginger
50 g sea fennel (also known as samphire or rock samphire and often available from the fish counter)
10 g dried arame, soaked 1 hour in water, drained and cooked for 10 minutes
1 purple carrot
½ mini cucumber (or an approximately finger-long piece of a salad cucumber)
2 tbsp. tahini (sesame paste)
½ tsp. roasted sesame oil
1 tsp. rapeseed oil
2 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1 walnut-sized piece of ginger, grated
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. white hulled sesame seeds, roasted in the pan without fat
Peel the carrots and dice into 0.5 x 0.5 cm cubes. Likewise, peel and dice the cucumber.
Mix the tahini with the grated ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar until smooth.
Heat the rapeseed oil in a pan and brown the diced carrots in the heated oil until they are soft but still crisp when bitten. Add the sea fennel and stew for approx. 30 seconds.
Mix with the diced cucumber pieces and bite-sized pieces of algae in a bowl together with the sesame dressing.
Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
Tagliatelle with seaweed, mushrooms and spring onions
For each serving, 6 g dried arame and wakame
10 medium-sized shiitake mushrooms
6 oyster mushrooms
½ bunch dill, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 spring onions, cut into fine rings
freshly ground pepper
250 g tagliatelle
freshly grated parmesan cheese, to taste
Soak the arame and wakame, rinse and discard the water.
Clean the shiitake mushrooms, trim the stalk and cut the button into slices. Slice the oyster mushrooms into strips.
Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a pan and cook the mushrooms over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the spring onions and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the seaweed.
Cook the tagliatelle per packaging instructions in salted water, drain and mix with 1 tbsp. olive oil and mix with the dill, arrange on plate. Spread the seaweed and mushroom mixture over the top and sprinkle with parmesan cheese as desired.
Age-old traditions reveal that the plant-based diet is more than just a fad
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