What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson
A garden grows on the edge of the sea in Maine, in that rocky zone where the tides wash in and out. Winged kelp, nori, dulse and other succulent sea vegetables thrive in dense, undulating beds — an underwater Eden of tasty, nutritious foods.
To many Americans, these macroalgal plants are completely unfamiliar — except when, disguised as ordinary “seaweed,” they make for slippery footing at low tide or wash ashore following a storm. But that will change if University of Maine researcher Susan Brawley is successful in her campaign to cultivate appreciation for the flavors, textures and nutrients that sea vegetables add to new and familiar dishes — from piquant snacks and hearty main courses to rich desserts.
For centuries, people of most coastal cultures have enjoyed the benefits of a diet rich in sea vegetables, Brawley notes. Although interest in Asian cuisines has showcased sea vegetables in this country — nori-wrapped sushi and “seaweed salad” are some familiar Japanese menu items — many European, South American and Scandinavian cultures also include sea vegetables in their food traditions. (Here in coastal Maine, old-timers remember that paper sacks of crisp, home-dried dulse for snacking could be found on the counters of general stores.)
Brawley, a professor of plant biology in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, says the time is right to reintroduce Americans to their culinary roots and give Maine-based aquaculture a boost in the process.
“There is no reason we can’t build a food culture on sea vegetables, especially given the emerging interest in local foods and traditional cuisines,” she says. “There is already a strong international market, and it would behoove us here in Maine to develop a sustainable, integrated aquaculture industry to meet and drive that demand.”
Brawley’s own research focuses on reproduction and stress tolerance in algae, which are among the oldest forms of life on Earth. Scientists have identified an algal fossil dating back about 1.2 billion years that is very similar to Porphyra, a type of red algae that is one of the world’s most farmed sea vegetables.
Now, she is working with other researchers, private companies and high-end chefs to learn more about sea vegetables — their nutritional value, where and how they grow best, and, critically, how to market, prepare and serve them in ways that attract discerning mainstream consumers.
Last year, when Brawley was president of the Phycological Society of America, she brought Irish physician, chef and cookbook author Prannie Rhatigan to the group’s annual meeting. The conference, held at the University of Washington, attracted hundreds of algal enthusiasts and scholars. Rhatigan’s breakout session, a hands-on workshop on cooking with sea vegetables — from dulse and cheese scones to cannellini bean salad with marinated winged kelp — was a hit at the conference, as was a gourmet dinner that featured exquisite dishes containing sea vegetables.
Building on that success, Brawley is looking ahead to this year’s association meeting in Charleston, S.C. She is working with conference organizers to persuade chefs from Charleston’s finest restaurants — and there are many — to develop and feature special dishes inspired by sea vegetables and the presence in Charleston of so many algal aficionados.
“If everyone worked with their own favorite restaurants and chefs,” Brawley says, “we could start a revolution and support the development of sustainable wild harvest and aquaculture on the Maine coast.”