How Ireland’s chefs are rediscovering the joys of cooking with seaweed

How Ireland’s chefs are rediscovering the joys of cooking with seaweed

In Connemara, the beaches are strewn with seaweed, which brings a delicate umami hit to everything from cookies to pesto. And although it spent decades out of favour, cooks have come to re-embrace this most Irish of ingredients.

Published September 2, 2023

20 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Within the soft, nutty yellow corn tortilla is a slick of piquant, smoky salsa, pan-wilted rainbow chard and a crowning of cheese, finely grated in pale, positively delicate curls. The main bulk of the filling looks and bites like stewed lentils, but the fatty texture and umami complexity is more reminiscent of minced meat, all slow-stewed and jammy. Yet, it’s neither — it’s made from dried seaweed pulp.

“It’s a funny story with this one,” says Sinéad O’Brien, “this was completely accidental and, like most things with seaweed, you’re just experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.” Sinéad’s mother Cindy is an aquaculture expert, originally from California, but who’s lived in Ireland since the mid-1990s. “One day, Mom made seaweed cookies using sea spaghetti, which she grinds into a pulp,” Sinéad continues, “[she] had some left over, so I suggested we experiment and see what happens, because this could kind of work like minced meat — and it turned out perfect.” 

Together, mother and daughter run Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co., an organic aquaculture farm producing seaweed products and abalone, as well as hosting foraging tours. The company’s base is a rocky perch in Connemara, where the Atlantic Ocean meets Galway Bay, on Ireland’s west coast. From Mungo Murphy’s glass-fronted container pod at Keeraunagurk, I can look out onto the moody but pristine water. The waves launch themselves at the shore, putting into perspective the effort and risk of venturing out on fishing vessels, battling storms and swells far from home in order to bring back the spoils of the deep sea. Seaweed, meanwhile, comes quietly, arriving like a gift from the water. It announces its presence when the tide recedes by bobbing on the surface, clinging to rocks and dancing in the wash and backwash. Seaweed just happens. 

Like people, it comes in many shapes and sizes, especially in this rugged part of Ireland, a place sculpted by the ocean. Many have Irish names, too, from rafa (kombu), with its long, ethereal tendrils, to skinny lengths of ríseach (sea spaghetti). Dillisk (sometimes dulse, or duileasc in Irish), which comes in thick, purple strips like coastal pappardelle, is probably Ireland’s most widely used variety. You can also find electric-green sea lettuce, all delicate and translucent; channel wrack, like great tangles of caperberries; and pepper dulse, which has fine, fern-like fronds and has been described by some as ‘the truffle of the ocean’.

“It’s definitely entered the realm of people who are interested in food and looking to experiment with a new ingredient, rather than it just being on high-end restaurant menus,” Sinéad says. She oversees production of products like dried sea spaghetti (which can be rehydrated and used in salads), dillisk (which can be added to smoothies, soups, sauces and bakes), dried kelp (ideal for umami-packed stocks) and a seasoning blend of dried seaweeds and herbs. 

Loud crunches reverberate around the visitor pod as we snack on tempura sea lettuce, still warm from the fryer. The amber-coloured batter is wafer-thin and shatteringly crisp, the curls of sea lettuce inside exuding the taste of the sea with each zingy bite. We then move from savoury to sweet: soft, cakey lemon-soaked friands and the cookies that inspired Sinéad’s taco mix. Seaweed appears in both, but it’s not the star in either, serving instead to add minerality and depth of flavour. The chocolate in the cookies conceals the oceanic flavour a little, but the friands are zingy and seaweed-spiked. They offer deep complexity instead of one-note sweetness, in the way adding a splash of fish sauce to caramel can imbue it with a concentrated, umami depth.

A sense of place

In the morning, I drive to the village of Baile na hAbhann for breakfast at Pota, a cafe-cum-community hub, where Irish is the working language (staff and menus are bilingual) and the colour scheme reflects Connemara’s landscape: moody navy blues, stony greys and pops of yellow the shade of gorse, Ireland’s native wildflower. The menu makes the most of hyper-local produce, but takes inspiration from further afield, including dishes that aren’t so common in these parts, such as ramen and fish tacos.

Diarmuid Ó Mathúna, Pota’s young and enthusiastic chef-owner, stops a while to chat as I tuck into the breakfast hash of fried potatoes dusted in seaweed salt, warmed black pudding, wilted kale and poached eggs. More seaweed tops the dish, in the form of a verdant pesto of blitzed kale and dillisk that seems to harmonise sea and land.

Though originally from Cork, Diarmuid says “being ‘of this place’” is important to him. “From hearing the language to using produce grown a mile up the road at An Garraí Glas [an organic farm], or shipped in from the nearby Aran Islands, tasting a sense of place is key. You can’t taste somewhere else here and you can’t taste ‘right here’ anywhere else,” he adds.

Despite the ubiquity of seaweed in these parts, it hasn’t always been a popular ingredient. “Like a lot of things in Irish food history, with seaweed there’s that connection to poverty,” Diarmuid says. He puts that partly down to the Great Famine, when potato blight infected Ireland’s staple food crop, leading to endless bouts of starvation over the course of nearly a decade from the late 1840s. “People were so hungry, that’s all they had and what they resorted to eating, so it became a sign of those times and, later, people definitely turned away from seaweed,” Diarmuid concludes.

Yet, the tide seems to be turning, and cooks are returning to the coastal bounty, with renowned chefs like JP McMahon — who’s argued seaweed should be given the title of Ireland’s national vegetable — and Martin O’Donnell, who’s executive head chef at The Twelve in Barna, leading the charge.

I drop in to see JP at his Michelin-starred Galway city restaurant Aniar, and find him wearing a sweatshirt that reads ‘Republic of Connemara’. Although he hails from Dublin, he’s now fully converted to the wild west and all it has to offer. 

“I didn’t eat fish at all growing up, and now I’m wondering, did I ever actually eat seaweed before opening Aniar,” he reveals. “Seaweed for me has become one of the most important and interesting things we do [here],” he adds. And indeed, the tasting menu is dotted with kelp, sea lettuce and dillisk, paired with other coastal treasures like scallops, sea urchins and sea radish.

“I feel Ireland has only scratched the surface of it,” JP continues. “It may take 15-20 years before [seaweed] becomes more of a staple ingredient, but I think we’ve moved beyond it being an isolated curiosity.” He attributes this shift not to chefs like him, but to the fact the Irish love to travel the world, and “abroad, they’re pushed to try complex or challenging ingredients [such as when visiting Japan or Scandinavia] before being comfortable to embrace the exact same thing when at home”.

This international influence theory could well hold water, as I discover when I meet Jess Murphy at her neighbourhood restaurant, Kai, just a few minutes’ walk from Aniar in Galway’s West End. Kai (Maori for ‘food’) is the first word in casual, ingredient-led restaurants in Galway — Jess describes local producers as the restaurant’s “whole heart”. It’s one of the hottest tables in town, particularly at lunchtimes, when it doesn’t take bookings. 

The New Zealand-born chef has just returned from a month back home, so I’m interested in the parallels between the two island nations. “Being part Maori, seaweed has huge spiritual and cultural significance for me,” she explains, in a musical Kiwi-meets-West of Ireland lilt. “For us, it’s more of a steaming tool, so we wrap whole fish in sugar kelp for steaming,” she explains. Sepia-toned, with broad ‘blades’, sugar kelp can grow up to five metres in length, making it ideal for wrapping and protecting delicate foods when cooking over fire. Jess also adds that seaweed is often “steeped in honeys, vinegars and pickles” in New Zealand, so is far more widely used than in Ireland.

Kai’s menu is about “feeding people what we want to eat ourselves” Jess tells me as we tuck into a selection of the cakes lining the restaurant’s counter, among them a decadent white chocolate and macadamia tart decorated in lavish swirls of mousse-like chocolate ganache and strewn with nuts she carted back from New Zealand in her checked luggage.

Jess describes the ways in which she uses different forms of seaweed in the restaurant, sprinkling dillisk onto curls of golden Cuinneog butter for each table and adding it to cheese scones, soda bread and even the water when boiling potatoes. “Boiling strips potatoes of their minerals and goodness, so getting seaweed in there kind of replaces what’s lost and puts the vitamins and minerals back in,” she explains. Back at home, I take her advice. As an Irish person, it feels doubly patriotic to cook spuds with seaweed, and the resulting mash harbours a distant, pleasant hum of the sea. The mash is even better when served with a slow-roasted lamb shoulder that’s been covered in dried, milled nori and dillisk; seaweed might seem an unlikely pairing with lamb, but it’s a combination advocated by JP McMahon, and it makes the flavours sing. 

“With seaweed, I just think — like anything people aren’t really used to eating — you need to put it in common places where it doesn’t intimidate people,” Jess suggests. “And it shouldn’t be the preserve of high-end kitchens — we should be cooking with it at home, as well as in hospitals and in schools, too.” 

Body and soil

In Connemara’s remote corners, the terrain becomes more rugged, vast and wild. Villages are little more than clusters of houses and main roads quickly turn to skinny boithríní (literally ‘small roads’) with tufts of grass as median strips and barely a car’s width to squeeze through. Many pre-date cars, in fact, and were originally designed for horses and carts, so it’s a glimpse into an Ireland of old, where industry, tourism and in some cases infrastructure haven’t quite reached.

Ceantar na nOileán is an archipelago linked to the mainland by a network of roads and bridges, and on one of the largest islands, Leitir Mealláin, is The Seaweed Centre. Opened in 2019, this visitor centre, spa and cafe is dedicated to communicating and preserving the seaweed heritage of this area through experiences including ‘seaweed safari’ tours and seaweed bathing. The coast is rocky and remote, though little inlets and sandy beaches dot the coastline, lapped by clear water. 

“Seaweed farming has been important for generations,” manager Pádraic Mac Diarmada tells me, “but more often than not, seaweed was seen as a fertiliser rather than a foodstuff.” This, Pádraic says, has been part of the problem — yet, even as a fertiliser, seaweed’s nutritional properties have played a vital role in feeding the people of this area. Even now, it’s still used in this way across the country’s coastal regions.

As well as nourishing the soil, seaweed is good for the body, too. Pádraic describes it as “basically anti- anything you can imagine: anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidising — you name it. It’s also great for relieving stress, relaxing muscles and as a natural way to help with some skin conditions.” There are plans for The Seaweed Centre’s cafe to include more seaweed in its dishes, but for now there’s the seaweed bath. It’s a soothing, hour-long soak in a roll-top tub, surrounded by bladderwrack, each long strand like a piece of couture, ombré hued from midnight black to chartreuse.

As I leave Connemara, I struggle to think of any other ingredient that’s as quintessentially Irish as seaweed. Yes, the potato is emblematic of the country’s cuisine, yet it only arrived on these shores around 450 years ago. Seaweed, meanwhile, has been harvested and eaten here for millennia, and though it’s yet to enter the mainstream in the way spuds have, it could get there — after all, it’s flavoursome, local and sustainable. Or, as JP McMahon puts it, it’s “just a vegetable with bad marketing”.  

JP McMahon’s crab claws with seaweed and samphire

Using several varieties of seaweed, this dish offers a taste of the Irish coast. 

Serves: 4 Takes: 15 mins

Ingredients

35g butter

12 cooked crab claws, shells removed

50g samphire 

25g fresh sea lettuce

For the seaweed vinegar (makes 750ml) 

300ml white wine vinegar

100g caster sugar

30g fresh kombu

30g fresh sugar kelp

10g fresh dulse

1 tsp sea salt

Method

  1. Combine all the ingredients for the seaweed vinegar in a medium pan with 200ml water. Set over a medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then transfer to a sterilised jar.  
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan set over a medium heat. Once it starts to foam, reduce the heat, add the crab claws and cook for 3-5 mins until warmed through. 
  3. Season the crab claws with salt and the seaweed vinegar to taste, then serve on a platter and garnish with the samphire and sea lettuce.

Taken from The Irish Cookbook, by JP McMahon (£39.95, Phaidon).

Published in Issue 20 (summer 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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