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In Ireland edible seaweed has been in vogue since at least 563 AD. That’s 1,412 years before the American food distributor Erewhon Trading Co. coined the term “sea vegetable,” 1,452 years before CBS News proclaimed that “kelp is the new kale,” and 1,450 years before the birth of Kim and Kanye’s daughter North—a.k.a. “Nori”—West.
It goes right back to the monks of the sixth century,” says Prannie Rhatigan, author of the cookbook Irish Seaweed Kitchen (Booklink, 2009). Back then, Irish brothers wrote poems describing their daily routine: “prayer, sleep, and harvesting seaweed,” she says.
No surprise, then, that it’s long been a staple there. The island is known for its barren turf, but under the sea a plant called dillisk thrives. That’s why Anne and Pat O’Farrell of Carrigaline Farmhouse Cheese turned to the ocean for a local ingredient to infuse their gouda-style wheels in the mid-1980s. Algae-flecked Dillisk Seaweed cheese was born.
It’s taken longer for Americans to warm up to the weed. But last January, Carrigaline finally sent its very first shipment of dillisk cheese to the US—and maker Padraig O’Farrell is confident about its reception. “Seaweed is becoming fashionable,” he says. “That’s because it’s a nutritional powerhouse.” Iodine, micronutrients, vitamins A and C, calcium and protein—the list goes on, but at culture we’re most excited about the flavor. Seaweed brims with glutamic acid, the same chemical responsible for umami nuances in mature cheese and cured meat. “Once people get a taste, they realize how it can transform a dish,” Rhatigan says.
“Stop Everything: There’s a New Seaweed That Tastes Like Bacon and Is Better for You Than Kale,” a Time magazine headline announced in June 2015. Actually, dulse isn’t so new; it’s the North American version of the Irish monks’ dillisk. A buzz over the leafy red weed began stateside when a research team at Oregon State University bred a new, easy-growing strain that yielded briny mineral flavors, not aggressive or fishy ones. Jason Ball—a veteran scientist-chef at Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab recruited by OSU to develop food products with the vitamin-packed plant—likens it to a just-harvested oyster with light minerality. “It tastes like the ocean,” he says.
Pan frying dulse in oil brings out an almondy aroma that matches beautifully with nutty, aged goat cheese; the seaweed tempers the cheese’s tang, allowing its sweet, fruity flavors to shine. When roasted and sprinkled with smoked gouda, dulse transforms into a chewy, smoky snack. It’s not quite bacon—but the analogy has merit.
Cypress Grove Midnight Moon + dulse
Beemster Smoked + dulse
Like cabbage, seaweed is hardy enough to withstand fermentation—and in the midst of our current pickle-everything climate, it makes sense that algae-spiked sauerkrauts are popping up on the market. Meaghan and Shane Carpenter, co-owners of Baltimore-based Hex Ferments, add arame and hijiki varieties to a mixture of cabbage and root vegetables before fermenting them. Arame contributes a mild ocean taste, while hijiki offers robust nuttiness. Combined with earthy-sweet beets, spicy ginger, and bitter burdock, “the flavors play off tastes of salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and pungent,” Meaghan says. She prefers her Sea Kraut with Appalachian tomme, an aged yet mild, slightly sweet cow’s milk cheese that doesn’t overshadow the kraut’s forward minerality. We also stuffed the zippy condiment in a simple Gruyère-and-rye grilled cheese for nutty, sharp, savory bliss.
Meadow Creek Dairy Appalachian + Hex Ferments Sea Kraut
Gruyère AOP + Hex Ferments Sea Kraut
Although there are dozens of takes on this seaweed-centric Japanese spice blend, it usually comprises dried or ground fish, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds mixed with nori flakes. The name, which translates to “sprinkle,” suggests its best use. Scatter it onto Tomales Farmstead Creamery Liwa, a fresh goat’s milk cheese. Instead of fading, the cheese’s initial creamy tang gets a meaty boost from the seaweed and a lingering toastiness from the sesame seeds, tapering into a long, buttery finish. A furikake dusting on an already-savory parmesan crisp also takes umami to new heights.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery Liwa + furikake
Sartori SarVecchio Parmesan + furikake
Feature Photo Credit: Akvals/Shutterstock.com