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Is Seaweed the Perfect Food?

Tamar Adler
Seaweed could be the perfect food: nutritious, naturally abundant, sustainable. But what do you do with it? Tamar Adler goes foraging along the California coast—and then whips up a feast.

“To look into such a pool is to behold a dark forest,” I remark to the stranger sitting next to me on the plane. I am actually reading aloud from Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. But it seems a reasonable response to his question about why I’m flying across the country, to California, to forage for sea­weed. Plus, the other reasons are mostly boring. An old friend, Iso Rabins, runs a San Francisco–based company called ForageSF, and he has repeatedly invited me to seaweed hunt with him. And Maine, where you can also get good seaweed, is frigid. In Sonoma, on the other hand, it is never truly cold. It is only ever rakishly brisk.

Less boring are the innumerable arguments to stop what you’re doing right now and at very least go buy some seaweed. I will try to enumerate: (1) I recoil at the use of the word superfood, but if any food were to qualify, it would be seaweed. With an extraordinary amount of calcium, vitamins A, C, K, and B₁₂, and iodine, potassium, and iron at ten times the levels in land vegetables, protein content to rival soy, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids comparable to those in fish oil, seaweed is the ne plus ultra of nutritiousness. For all of its “saltiness,” seaweed is surprisingly low in sodium. Such virtue often aligns with unpleasant qualities, like toughness or astringency (read: kale), but (2) seaweed is delicious! It is truffle delicious, MSG delicious, meaning it produces that fifth taste—also in mushrooms and soy sauce, Parmesan cheese and anchovies—known as umami.

A third argument comes from the World Bank in a 2016 report. (3) “To maintain current consumption trends, the world will also need to produce 50–70 percent more food by 2050, increasingly under drought conditions and on poor soils.” Seaweed farms can produce seventeen times the protein of a livestock farm with no fuel, no fertilizer, no freshwater, and no land. Seaweed sequesters nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, meaning seaweed farms are carbon negative. They improve the environment. (4) Did I mention that British chef Jamie Oliver claims to have lost 28 pounds thanks to seaweed?

The question is: What to do with it? Yes, seaweed has been central to Asian cooking since the start of time, and over the last decade, restaurants in the West have caught on, motivated by the inquiry-based cooking championed by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and then Noma’s René Redzepi. Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters braises mushrooms in kelp stock. New York City’s Houseman steams fish with seaweed butter. At Chicago’s Smyth, chef John Shields’s menu includes a Turkish-towel gelée, a sea-lettuce pastry that smells like white truffles and tastes like matcha, a seaweed caramel tart, and a kombu ice cream Shields insists could pass for a Wendy’s Frosty. At Los Angeles’s Providence, chef Michael Cimarusti keeps a hairy-looking seaweed called Red Ogo in a lobster tank and spritzes it with lemon juice to accompany fish crudo. At her San Francisco Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn, chef Dominique Crenn makes seaweed broth, seaweed chips, and powdered seaweed and cooks fish wrapped in seaweed. Seaweed is a very Breton ingredient, she informs me. In French, seaweed is les algues and has none of the negative connotations of the English word. “Americans think everything is garbage,” she says, sighing.

Nonetheless, seaweed is entering the mainstream. National chain Legal Sea Foods serves seaweed salad from a seaweed farm in Maine. The Flatbread Company puts some on each one of its organic salads. Blue Apron has delivered more than a million seaweed packs in its boxes. Even toddlers, not yet conversant in hamachi and unagi, eat seaweed in little crisp packages as SeaSnax.

En route to California, I gently attempt to engage my seatmate in some collective learning. “Look! It is ecologically sound to harvest wild and to seed dense seaweed farms,” I murmur. “A scientific study found that farming shellfish alongside a seaweed farm results in stronger shells.” I display several graphics from a vertical 3-D oyster and kelp farm in Connecticut, nudging my new friend’s elbow. He has been feigning sleep and is unmoved. Shortly, we arrive. I bid farewell, deplane, and begin my drive about 90 miles northwest, through cow country, toward a secluded beach in Sonoma County, just north of Bodega Bay.

The scenery is arresting: dry, grassy golden hills dotted with nibbling cows. After a brief stop at In-N-Out Burger, which serves no seaweed, I turn toward the rocky gray coast and wind along a precipitous and picturesque cliff to GPS coordinates provided by Rabins.

I open my rental-car door to fill my lungs with fresh salt air. A group awaits in flannels and Wellingtons, some of the ruddiest people on the planet. I wonder if it is all the seaweed they eat.

One of them is Catherine O’Hare, co­founder of the culinary seaweed company Salt Point Seaweed, run by three women who spend dawn and dusk clipping seaweed. She details the expedition’s rules: Do not run on rocks with scissors; do not turn your back to the ocean; do not take more than one-seventh of any seaweed patch.

Scissors and bags in hand, we scuttle down a set of treacherous stairs to the beach. Seaweed grows at the border of land and sea. Wherever there is a border, there is biodiversity, and I notice immediately that I’m standing above a sort of upside-down boreal jungle. There are huddles of the Spanish delicacy percebes (goose barnacles); clusters of indigo mussels clinging to black metamorphic nobs. And the seaweed! Even a novice can tell we’ve hit the jackpot. Ribbons of bull kelp swish restlessly; clumps of Turkish washcloth—not to be confused with Turkish towel—offer themselves in coarse scarlet bouquets. Kerchiefs of nori dance. Petals of sea lettuce flutter. Dozens of seaweeds I can’t identify live among them, a model heterogeneous society.

My fellow foragers are harvesting for work. One runs a company called Broth Baby, which makes healing broths, including hand-foraged seaweed. Another two make homeopathic remedies for health conditions—like recovery from surgery or childbirth or the flu—that are well treated with seaweed. Adam Nelson, CEO of Oakland Spirits Company, is gathering specimens to infuse bottles of what his company calls Sea Gin. They are working with alacrity. So I wander off in the contemplative company of silvery water and shale bluffs to taste-test.

This requires concentration. The flavors are simple and then become much more difficult. Bladderwrack (unfortunate) tastes different from Dead Man’s Fingers (also unfortunate), which tastes different from sea lettuce. But there are commonalities. There is salt, of course, and a pleasantly clingy iodine flavor. There is a sea musk. There is umami. There is an emotional flavor I can’t place. It recalls my having been in the past knocked down by waves, pulled under and tumbled by an unknowable eternal sea.

And how to cook this complex and ineffable nostalgia into dinner? When I look for mushrooms in Hudson Valley woods in fall, I am thinking, as I shiver through the damp, of sautéing them in fat and cream and putting them on toast; when I pick ramps in spring, I am already, in my mind, separating tops and bottoms to cook them in butter. In today’s seaside tromp, a certain degree of culinary fantasy is missing.

Back in my home kitchen, I resolve to find a seaweed dish worth dreaming about. In addition to what I’ve brought from California, I’ve acquired farmed kelp, dulse, and wakame from Maine and packages of imported kelp and wakame from China. I call Briana Warner, a seaweed expert whose Ocean Approved kelp is farmed at sixteen farms along the East Coast, to ask about the differences between imported and domestic. “Seaweed cleans the ocean of toxins and heavy metals, which is incredible,” she says. “But that’s why you really want to know that the seaweed you eat is grown in crystal-clean waters.” I toss out all but my California and Maine seagreens, which she assures me are pristine, and go in search of inspiration.

I call my brother, formerly the chef of Brooklyn’s beloved Franny’s and now culinary vice president at Blue Apron. Blue Apron’s seaweed is used mostly for sprinkling over dishes, he says, but at Franny’s, he used to serve dollops of barely warm rich burrata over a salad of marinated seaweeds with Calabrian chiles on crusty toast. I hang up without saying goodbye, as one can with family, and rush to my local cheese store, Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions, for burrata. Mona Talbott, the store’s proprietress and one of my son’s godmothers, stops me to chat. “Have you ever tasted Le Beurre Bordier aux algues?” she asks.

Apparently this is cult Breton butter-maker Jean-Yves Bordier’s masterpiece: his trademark hand-paddled cultured milk, mixed with copious amounts of wild seagreens collected only twice a year in Finistère, in western Brittany. Talbott places a call to nearby Churchtown Dairy, a Rockefeller-owned dairy farm, to request two quarts of freshly cultured fresh cream, then disappears into her kitchen. From within, she orders me to retrieve the cream the following day, when she will meet me at my house to experiment.

This leaves me time to test my brother’s recipe. I pour hot water over the Maine kelp and wakame and some of my nori, slice them, marinate them in lemon juice, Calabrian chile, and olive oil, and then toss it all quickly with a little julienned lacinato kale. This salad goes over olive oil–drizzled peasant bread, onto which I put half a ball of creamy burrata. Toasted dulse, which has been called the bacon of the sea, goes in crumbles over everything. The entire dish is a revelation, and I have decided that I will never serve burrata without seaweed again.

Talbott arrives bearing sprouted rye bread, radishes, and fennel. She pours cultured cream into my KitchenAid, then entertains her godson while the machine slowly separates the fat from the buttermilk. Fifteen minutes later, hearing the mixer slow, she quickly grabs the bowl, rolls up her sleeves, and begins to pour off buttermilk and knead what remains. “Toast the seaweed!” she cries. I fill one cast-iron pan with nori from California and another with dulse from Maine and watch with hawklike focus until I lose my focus and one panful nearly burns. But I catch it in time, and both seaweeds are cooled and pulsed to a medium fine crumb. Meanwhile, Talbott has created pale golden butter, smooth as river stones. As it is, the butter is tangy and rich. Then she deftly mixes in seaweed by the great handful, and flakes of sea salt, turning it a gorgeous, mottled yellow-purple.

On rye bread, our beurre aux algues is briny bliss. Spread on radishes, it makes evident how good a good radish can be. On fennel it is rich, round perfection. The beurre is, simply, one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever tasted, and when Talbott leaves, with two small parchment-wrapped logs of butter to bring home, I sit at the table for another hour, eating the entire crock as though it were cheese. Over subsequent days I experiment, slathering the butter onto celery (incomparable), fried chicken (otherworldly), toast (I have never eaten so much toast). The pièce de résistance, however, comes to me late one night, after I have already eaten through much of our seaweed-butter stock. It is a sheet of raw nori, purchased from my local health-food store, layered with seaweed butter and softly scrambled eggs.

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