Cooked in Asia for centuries, this protein-rich marine plant is making its way onto our plates.
With the world's population expected to reach the 9 billion mark by around 2050, specialists of all stripes are concerned about feeding the next generations.
Reports periodically come out suggesting that the answer lies in the reduction of food waste, the intensive harvesting of GMO crops, a more widespread reliance on organic agriculture, the establishment of a global vegetarian regime or the successful conversion of meat-loving cultures to diets rich in soy or tofu.
The latest brouhaha — backed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO — has focused on insects, which scientists have promoted as a new source of protein. With news reports covering grasshopper breeding in apartments, short-winged cricket cooking lessons and taste comparisons between Thai organic bamboo worms and giant mealworms, it's safe to say the issue has captivated the media's attention.
But this press frenzy has hardly changed the world's culinary habits, especially in Western countries.
Luckily, there is an alternative marine solution, one that could significantly help, if not guarantee, mankind's survival: algae, which has been popular in Asian cooking for centuries. This abundant resource is even more important considering that it can be cultivated or harvested in the wild.
[rebelmouse-image 27089591 alt="""" original_size="1023x575" expand=1]
Seaweed salad — Photo: Joselu Blanco
According to the FAO, global algae production has gone from 2 million tons in the 1970s to more than 25 million in 2013, with 90% of species coming from algaculture and the remainder from the wild. About 60% is used in pharmacology, cosmetology or as fertilizer.
But 40% ends up in our plates in one form or another: fresh, as a condiment, dried, frozen or mixed in with other ingredients. We eat algae every day without realizing it. Agar-agar, for instance, is an algae additive that has been replacing the gelatin in cooked meats, candy and cookies over the last four decades.
Oceans and rivers contain more than 100,000 species of algae, but only 145 of these are consumed in the world, including 24 that are authorized in France: eight species of brown algae (wakame, kombu, thongweed, fucus), 11 of red algae (dulse, nori), two of green algae (sea lettuce) and three of micro-algae (spirulina).
Rich in protein, iodine, calcium, mineral salts and all sorts of vitamins, the different types of algae help prevent cardiovascular diseases and boost our immune systems. These undersea plants are not harmed by land disasters. The only drawback: They are vulnerable to oil spills and contamination by heavy metals, which harm their unanimously recognized nutritional qualities.
The French, who grow and harvest 80,000 tons of algae along the 2,700-kilometer stretch of Brittany coast, only consume 1,500 tons per year, compared with the 2 million tons consumed by the Japanese. In their defense, the red tides that pollute Brittany beaches with excrement from intensive pig farms hardly stir up enthusiasm, let alone appetite.
Most foodies who have never traveled to Japan discover algae in sushi bars: Maki, miso soup and wakame salad serve as the introductory trio of the marine vegetable world.
Which are the most popular types of algae? Nori, famed for wrapping up maki, is the most consumed algae in the world. Collected in Brittany by hand at low tide, it has a very distinctive taste, similar to Chinese smoked tea.
Next up, wakame, a dark green algae found in brine; it makes for a great fresh salad with sesame oil and seeds. With its highly salty flavor, wakame is closer in taste to the oyster, and it is generally used in Japanese miso soup.
[rebelmouse-image 27089592 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]
Algae salad — Photo: San
Kombu is a long brown algae collected in France in the Molène archipelago. Slightly sweeter than the wakame, the kombu is grown in the Finistère department. With dried skipjack shavings, it is one of the two pillars of dashi, the famous aromatic broth that is used as the base ingredient of many Asian dishes.
Sea lettuce is also growing increasingly popular. Very green and slightly peppery, it, too grows in Brittany and is often used in salads.
Algae tastes good, but that's not all. An algae-based vaccine could help reinforce the immune systems of battery-reared chickens, and prevent them from being stuffed with preventive antibiotics. Tests carried out on 500,000 birds seem promising.
Salvation could come from the seas.