With its complexity in flavour and texture, seaweed is the culinary trend taking diners' palates to another dimension, writes Richard Cornish.
There is a particular deliciousness to Martin Benn's food, a mellow, mouth-filling and pleasing sensation that continues from dish to dish like a culinary leitmotif. Benn, chef and co-owner of Sydney three-star restaurant Sepia, has ditched the chicken stock and veal jus of European tradition as the flavour foundation for his cuisine and turned instead to seaweed. And where 20 or even 10 years ago this might've seemed unusual, today he's just one of a raft of top-end chefs in Australia who are embracing a global trend towards making greater use of the plants of the sea. It's a profound shift, and one that's coming to a kitchen near you soon.
The background note to many of Benn's dishes is dashi, the Japanese stock made with a combination of kombu seaweed and shavings of dried and fermented bonito. Although Benn worked for many years under Tetsuya Wakuda, and was exposed to the use of dashi during that time, he says it's at Sepia that he has greatly developed and expanded his understanding and use of seaweed. The likes of dashi stocks and subtle garnishes of powdered nori, shaved kombu, native sea vegetables and rehydrated imported seaweeds provide much of the savoury deliciousness of his dishes.
The unusual textures of seaweeds, too, play a distinctive role in Benn's cooking. "Some are fresh and light, but also have a slight crunch, like wakame, and used in soups and salads," he says. "Then there's hijiki, with its earthy, woody texture, again used in soups."
He also uses kombu to tenderise squid by first soaking it in sake and then laying the it over the squid. "Seaweeds have diverse flavour profiles, from very delicate to very robust, very fresh to extremely earthy; each one is different," Benn says. "Seaweed makes food taste good."
In Beechworth in Victoria's north-east, chef Michael Ryan of Provenance explains a little of the science. "Seaweed, particularly kelp, is naturally high in an amino acid called glutamate," he says. Combine kombu with dried shiitake mushrooms, which are high in guanylate, a natural flavour enhancer, or with bonito, which is high in inosinate, and something amazing happens. "There's a synergy between these compounds that gives you a very strong sensation of umami," says Ryan. "The effect is remarkable."
Ryan demonstrates this with kingfish that's poached in dashi and then brushed with iwa nori jam, made by cooking down iwa nori, a rock seaweed, with sake and sugar. This is served with a salad of cucumber and sea spaghetti, sea lettuce imported from Spain, plus a little native seaweed from East Gippsland, creating a rich, meaty-tasting dish with a slight sweetness that still preserves delicate flavours.
Ryan recently visited farmer Andrew French at Snowy River Station near Orbost, 350km east of Melbourne. French's paddocks lie below sea level, and floods have rendered them too saline for crops or grass, so he now grows indigenous salt-tolerant food plants such as samphire, beach bananas and sea parsley. The channels that once drained the flat paddocks now flood-irrigate the farm with saltwater from the Snowy River estuary. They're now naturally stocked not only with schools of tiny flathead, tailor and mulloway but tonnes of thread-weed, a fine, ribbon-like seaweed. "It's very tasty," says Ryan.
"But it's not quite as good as the seaweed imported from Spain. They know how to process it."
The Australian seaweed business is in its infancy. Global edible seaweed production is around 15 million tonnes and worth around $7.79 billion, according to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; in 2012 Australia produced just several hundred tonnes. Investment worth millions of dollars by Chinese companies in sites in South Australia, and some boutique harvesting of invasive Japanese wakame in Tasmania hold promise. Sadly a recent high-profile venture, Coral Coast Mariculture, which was growing sea grapes in Queensland, is now in the hands of administrators.
Research under way at Deakin University in Warrnambool in south-west Victoria, however, has proven that local seaweed is just as tasty as imported seaweed when handled properly. Taste tests conducted by Dr Alecia Bellgrove, senior lecturer in marine biology and ecology at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, saw local bull kelp perform just as well as Japanese kombu in controlled taste trials. "We're questioning if we have the possibility of a local industry," she says. "The taste and nutritional side looks good, but there's a lot of work around the environmental side of things." (Bellgrove notes that although Australian bull kelp is both edible and delicious, its harvest restricted by differing state and local laws.)
While it may be some time before our native seaweeds are recruited into commercial production, chefs are making the most of seaweed imported from Asia and Europe. The emergence of experimental cuisine in Spain over the past decades created a resurgence in seaweed consumption. Previously the food of the poor, and something used to fatten pigs in coastal areas, wild seaweed is now hand-harvested off the Galician coast by a company called Porto Muiños, which exports to Australia.
One of Spain's biggest proponents of cooking with seaweed is Ángel León. Known as the Chef of the Sea, he was last year anointed as Spain's best chef by the Royal Spanish Academy of Gastronomy. Working with the University of Cádiz, he developed a method of extracting micro-seaweeds from ocean water, which he then uses in his signature dish - a bowl of rich, creamy, vibrant green rice that tastes deliciously of the sea. His "Taste of the Biological Bottom of the Sea in a Wedge Sole", meanwhile, is a dish of white prawns romping about a piece of sole decorated with various types of seaweed made to resemble a garden on the ocean floor. A visit by León's right-hand man, Aponiente chef Juan Luis Fernández, during the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in March has inspired Frank Camorra and the MoVida team to host a "Seaweed Salon" at MoVida Aqui on 3 May to better explore the subject.
"I'm more than passionate about the sea," León says. "I'm obsessed. But as we consume more seafood there is becoming less of it. In the future, if we want to taste the flavour of the sea we will have
to turn to seaweeds."
Read more: GT's guide to edible seaweed.