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Volume 62, Issue 3


The rise of seaweed gastronomy: phycogastronomy

Ole G. Mouritsen
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Food Science, Taste for Life, Design and Consumer Behavior, Nordic Food Lab, University of Copenhagen, 26 Rolighedsvej, Frederiksberg DK-1958, Denmark,
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/ Prannie Rhatigan / José Lucas Pérez-Lloréns
  • Instituto Universitario de Investigación Marina (INMAR), Campus de Excelencia Internacional/Global del Mar (CEI·MAR), Universidad de Cádiz, Av. República Saharaui s/n. 11510-Puerto Real, Cádiz, Spain
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Published Online: 2018-12-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/bot-2018-0041


Seaweeds enjoy a rich history as human foodstuff for populations around the world. The omnipresence of seaweeds in all climate belts, the great biodiversity, their bounty of important nutrients, combined with the fact that most seaweeds are edible, suggest that seaweeds have played an important role as human food during human evolution. Seaweeds have served as a cheap and easily accessible crop in the daily fare for coastal populations. In many food cultures, in particular in Southeast Asia, seaweeds have for millennia been considered as valuable sea vegetables. In recent years, regional seaweed cuisines around the world have been rediscovered and reinvigorated, and many chefs up to the top level have initiated, often in collaboration with scientists, a trend towards a new seaweed gastronomy (phycogastronomy).

Keywords: food culture; gastronomy; human food; phycogastronomy; seaweeds; world cuisine

Man, who has been humorously defined to be a cooking animal, not content with the tribute of fish rendered to him by the Ocean, converts many of her vegetable productions into articles of diet. (Greville 1830)

Introduction: world seaweed resources as human food

Seaweeds are believed to have played a role in the daily fare for coastal populations around the globe for millennia and they have been transported from the coast, often in dried form, and supplied as food for inland populations. However, since seaweeds only have soft tissues, they leave in most cases no archeological traces of their use as human foodstuff. Where they have been found at prehistoric human dwellings it is difficult to establish that they have in fact been used as food and not only for other purposes like firewood, medicine, and shelter. Similarly, even it is possible from the isotope composition of human remains to discern if an individual has had a primarily marine-based food supply, it is not possible to tell if that particular isotope composition is due to ingestion of seaweeds or the consumption of marine animals that in turn have been eating seaweeds. Still, due to their widespread global occurrence, diversity, accessibility, and not least their nutritional value and palatability, it is unlikely that they have not been an integral part of the diet of our ancestors around the globe.

In particular, it has been argued that seaweeds may have played a role in human brain evolution (Cornish et al. 2017) because they contain some of the most essential elements for brain development, specifically super-unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, taurine, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B12, and iodine (MacArtain et al. 2007, Holdt and Kraan 2011, Pereira 2011, Pomin 2012, Brown et al. 2014).

Whereas seaweeds possibly have been eaten by coastal population in prehistoric times all around the world, it appears that it is food cultures in Southeast Asia, in particular China, Japan, and Korea, as well as in Polynesia, that have maintained a tradition for using seaweeds as food up to modern times. In Europe and the Americas this tradition has only survived a few scattered places, e.g. in Brittany, Ireland, Iceland, and Chile. The general impact of seaweeds on human culture and society has recently been described in a book by O’Connor (2017) (Figure 1).

Classical Japanese woodblock print of harvesting Porphyra/Pyropia spp. for nori production.
Figure 1:

Classical Japanese woodblock print of harvesting Porphyra/Pyropia spp. for nori production.

It is interesting to note that until recently seaweeds in Europe and the Americas were not considered as part of advanced culinary activities or innovative gastronomy. In fact, in some countries like Ireland, Faroe Islands, and Brittany the consumption of seaweeds still to some extent has connotations with poor people’s food and times of famine. In contrast, in Southeast Asia and, e.g. Hawaii, seaweed dishes are considered valuable, a delicacy, and highly desirable foodstuff. In Japan, the traditional so-called “enlightened cuisine” (shojin ryori) uses seaweeds both as flavor-givers and seasoning condiments as well as in a great variety of dishes (Tsuji 1980, Fujii 2005). Hence, real gastronomical applications of seaweeds were scarce in Europe and the Americas until a few years ago.

This situation is rapidly changing now, partly because Western chefs are becoming increasingly interested in novel uses of marine foodstuff, often in collaboration with culinary scientists, and partly because of the globally growing locavore movement focused on the use of local food ingredients. Also the fact that seaweeds are gradually becoming recognized as a healthy and nutritious food source has engaged trendsetters and actors within the general health-food movement.

Seaweeds are a very important part of the world’s marine resources. According to FAO (2016), the global production of seaweeds amounted in 2014 to about 27 million tons fresh weight, of which about 97% was from aquaculture sources. About 45% of the seaweeds were used directly for human consumption and the rest for production of hydrocolloids, some of which also end up in food products (Buschmann et al. 2017). The major production of seaweeds takes place in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines that are the same areas where there is a long and continued tradition for consuming seaweeds.

The earliest known indication of seaweed as foodstuff can be traced back to the later Pleistocene (14,000 BCE) according to the archeological excavations in Monte Verde (Southern Chile) that revealed the existence of several (9) species of seaweeds (Macrocystis pyrifera (Linnaeus) C. Agardh, Durvillaea antarctica (Chamisso) Hariot, Sarcothalia crispata (Bory) Leister, Sargassum C.Agardh, Gigartina Stackhouse, Gracilaria Greville, or Porphyra C.Agardh/Pyropia J.Agardh) mixed with stone tools, mortars, hearths and other materials demonstrating human occupation (Dillehay et al. 2008). Some of the seaweeds were near a worked cooking surface and some had clear teeth marks. This finding reinforces the “kelp highway hypothesis” that states that the first American settlers sailed, after the end of the Ice Age, from Asia (where the seaweeds were used as food) to South America along the Pacific coastline following a long and imaginary corridor that would provide them with seafood (including seaweeds) among other resources (Erlandson et al. 2007).

In a separate paper we are reviewing the world cuisines of seaweeds (Mouritsen et al. 2018a) and we here for completeness only give some key references to the literature describing historical, traditional, and modern culinary uses of seaweeds around the world, including Asia, mostly Japan (Tsuji 1980, Nisizawa et al. 1987, Smith 1905, Matsuyama 2002, O’Connor 2013), China (Chapman 1980, Lee and Branyon 1984, Tseng 1984, Xia and Abbott 1987, Simoons 1991), Korea (Pettid 2008, O’Connor 2017), and Thailand (Lewmanomont 1978), see also Table 1.

Table 1:

Annual consumption of seaweeds as food in different countries.

Seaweeds are used on a considerable scale in Europe, but as fertilizer and for feeding animals rather than people (Chapman 1980). The European market for seaweeds (mostly for culinary uses) is increasing at a yearly growth rate of 7–10%, with an estimated wholesale value in 2013 at about EUR 24 million in Europe (Organic Monitor 2014). Traditional and some modern uses are found in Ireland (Sexton 1998, Rhatigan 2009), Scotland (Gifford 1853, Robertson 1856, Smith 1905, Newton 1951, O’Connor 2017), Wales (O’Connor 2017), and Southern Europe (O’Connor 2013). Some coastal tribes of Native North America (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991) and inhabitants of some coastal regions in South America (Pereira 1977, Masterson and Funada-Classen 2004, Montecino 2005) have used seaweeds for food, and the same is true of populations on Polynesian islands, e.g. Hawaii, (Abbott and Williamson 1974, Madlener 1977, Abbott 1978, Ostraff 2003), in Indonesia (Hogue 1922, Zaneveld 1955, Soegiarto and Sulustijo 1990), New Zealand (Brooker et al. 1981, Cooksley 2007, Smith et al. 2010, SANZ 2018), and Australia (Tinellis 2014, Winberg 2017).

Sensory perception of seaweeds

The culinary appreciation of the different types of seaweeds derives from all five senses. Some seaweeds are valued for their visual appearance in a dish, both in terms of colors and shapes. The mouthfeel and texture are essential for the use of seaweeds in many Asian cuisines, not least the traditional Japanese cuisine (Japanese Culinary Academy 2016).

The aroma of many seaweeds is sometimes less appreciated, e.g. when common decomposition products like dimethyl sulfide are present in larger amounts. However, in small amounts dimethyl sulfide is the odor we associate with the fresh salty ocean: fresh and well-preserved seaweeds have the pleasant mild odor that is often associated with salty waters, often with notes of iodine and bromine. Certain brown seaweeds, like the Japanese konbu are stored at controlled temperature conditions in warehouses for at least two years and in some cases 10 years to mellow their odor (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2014). In other cases, harvesters (Druehl 2016) let their seaweeds, e.g. the large brown kelps such as Macrocystis pyrifera (macrokelp) and Nereocystis luetkeana (K.Mertens) Postels & Ruprecht (bullwhip kelp), dry in open air in sunshine where the ultraviolet radiation will lead to the breakdown of some of the bitter-tasting polyphenols (tannins).

In several cases, eating seaweeds can also invoke the auditory system, e.g. dried, fried, or toasted seaweed can appear crispy, crackly, and crunchy. However, the most prominent sensory perception of many seaweeds derives from their unique ability to impart umami taste. In fact, this “fifth taste” was first proposed as a basic taste when it was discovered that konbu, so prominently used in the Japanese soup stock dashi, is the main component responsible for the delicious taste of dashi (Ikeda 2002).

Seaweeds’ ability to appeal to all our five senses is the reason why they are used widely in the world cuisine as well as in high-end gastronomy. They can be used as a flavor-giver and seasoning agent, as a condiment, as a snack, and as part of a dish or as a whole dish. Due to their varied shapes and colors, seaweeds are also used for decoration and to impart a particularly appealing visual appearance to a presentation, be it a salad, a soup, a dessert, or a drink.

Some seaweeds often become imparted with special tastes and aromas, e.g. by marinating, smoking, fermenting, as well as by adding various spices.

Umami and the magic of dashi

The traditional Japanese cuisine revolves around the concept of dashi. Dashi means “a cooked extract,” and the extraction is here an aqueous extract of a large brown macroalga, Japanese konbu (Saccharina Stackhouse). When analyzing the chemical composition of konbu, the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1909 (Ikeda 2002) discovered very large amounts of free glutamate, around 2–3% dry weight, to which he attributed the delicious taste (umai) of dashi. Finding that he could not produce this new taste by a combination of the four classical basic tastes, salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, he proposed that this new taste is a basic taste and he called it umami.

Although dashi is often considered as a simple soup stock used as a base for, e.g. miso soup, it is much more than that because it can be used to impart delicious taste to a large range of other food preparations, not least plant-based foodstuff (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2014). Konbu is possibly the kind of foodstuff that, with the least amount of processing, develops free glutamate in any appreciable amount. The capacity of different varieties of konbu to elicit umami correlates with their content of free glutamate. Of the many different variants of Japanese Saccharina japonica (Areschoug) C.E.Lane, C.Mayes, Druehl & G.W.Saunders, ma-konbu, rausu-konbu, and rishiri-konbu are the best for extraction to dashi, and they lead to a very light dashi with a mild and somewhat complex taste. Ma-konbu has the largest amount of free glutamate, 3200 mg per 100 g, whereas rausu-konbu has 2200 mg and rishiri-konbu has 2000 mg. The lower-quality hidaka-konbu has 1300 mg per 100 g. The red laver (Porphyra/Pyropia spp.) used to produce nori has comparable amounts (1378 mg per 100 g) whereas most other types of seaweed are inferior in this respect (Ninomiya 1998, Blumenthal et al. 2009, Mouritsen et al. 2012) (Figure 2). A recent comparative study of the free glutamate content of 20 different species of brown seaweeds used for human consumption from around the world, belonging to the 12 genera demonstrated that only Japanese konbu contained any appreciably amounts of free glutamate (Mouritsen et al. 2018b).

Drying konbu (Saccharina longissima (Miyabe) C.E.Lane, C.Mayes, Druehl & G.W.Saunders) at Hokkaido, Japan. Photo courtesy of Robert Thomson.
Figure 2:

Drying konbu (Saccharina longissima (Miyabe) C.E.Lane, C.Mayes, Druehl & G.W.Saunders) at Hokkaido, Japan.

Photo courtesy of Robert Thomson.

The potency of the umami taste is due to a special synergy at the level of the umami receptor, T1R1/T1R3 (Mouritsen and Khandelia 2012), where free glutamate enters an allosteric mechanism if there are free nucleotides, such as inosinate, guanylate, or adenylate, present simultaneously with free glutamate. In the case of a classical dashi, inosinate is provided by a special fish product from bonito, katsuobushi, that is added to the aqueous konbu-extract. In the Buddhist vegetarian Japanese cuisine, shojin ryori, dried shiitake replaces katsuobushi and provides another type of free nucleotide, guanylate (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2014).

Although other soup stocks can contain the ingredients that induce umami synergy, Japanese dashi is particularly clean in its umami taste since its molecular composition is much less complex than, e.g. a Western or Chinese vegetable and meat-based soup whose strong umami taste is overshadowed by other flavors.

It is interesting to note in this context, that the world’s single most valuable seaweed product, nori, made of the red seaweed Porphyra/Pyropia spp. and used, e.g. to impart umami taste and crispy texture to sushi, is one of the few food ingredients (along with sun-ripe tomatoes) that, in the very same ingredient, harbors both components for umami synergy, i.e. free inosinate and free glutamate (Figure 3).

Nori (Porphyra/Pyropia spp.) used for cone sushi, temaki-zushi. Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.
Figure 3:

Nori (Porphyra/Pyropia spp.) used for cone sushi, temaki-zushi.

Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.

In Japan seaweed extracts are used as an infusion or a tea that can work as an aperitivo. Dashi based on seaweed extracts are also used as a flavor-giver to other dishes in which the seaweed itself does not enter, only its taste, e.g. in simmered, steamed, and boiled dishes of vegetables, meat, fish, cephalopods, and shellfish. The traditional New England clambake also takes advantage of the taste of the involved seaweeds only.

A Japanese specialty, kobu-jime, involves storing fresh filets of white fish, e.g. brill or turbot, in layers with pieces of konbu between. After 1 or 2 days, the texture of the fish has mellowed and the seaweed by its free glutamate has enhanced the flavor of the fish that usually does not contain much glutamate but can have large amounts of inosinate.

Although the pairing principle behind the umami synergy has been known phenomenologically for centuries by cooks and chefs in different food cultures (cf. the well-known pairings eggs-bacon, vegetables-meat, cheese-ham, etc.), a better-informed use of the scientific principle and magic behind dashi has now perfused the world cuisine where it is being used in a large variety of dishes. Konbu has also found a place as a common staple in the kitchen of many restaurants.

Mouthfeel and texture of seaweeds

Apart possibly from the umami taste, when most people refer to the “taste experience” of seaweeds, it is almost invariably related to the mouthfeel, that is the texture of the seaweeds. Texture is that part of the foodstuff’s physical structure that our sensory apparatus can detect (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2017). Texture of seaweeds is described by such terms such as hard, soft, crunchy, crispy, slimy, chewy, tough, tender, elastic, etc. It is interesting to note that the Japanese language contains four times as many words pertaining to mouthfeel as Western languages (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2017). It is likely that this particular attention to texture is one of the reasons why the Japanese value seaweeds for their mouthfeel and use three different terms to this effect: kuchi atari (palatability, mouthfeel), shitazawari (tongue feel), and hagotae (crunchiness, tooth resistance).

The many different types of seaweeds used for human consumption have a very wide range of textures, and the texture depends obviously on the age of the seaweed and its stage in its life cycle, which part we are talking about, how it has been stored after harvesting, and last, but not least, how it has been prepared in the kitchen.

Except for very young sprouts and fronds, most seaweeds are often tough and chewy when they are picked fresh, even the thin and delicate fronds of Porphyra/Pyropia spp. (laver) and Ulva Linnaeus (sea lettuce, green string lettuce) despite the fact that the fronds of these seaweeds are only one or two cell layers thick. Drying, roasting, and cooking will help to tenderize them. Some larger species have capillary systems that render them chewy, and species like Undaria pinnatifida (Harvey) Suringar (wakame) and Alaria Greville (winged kelp) have a midrib that is more tough than the rest of the frond. Other species have stipes and floats that generally are also quite tough and, in many cases, inedible. Sporophylls are often softer than the rest of the frond and due to their higher content of fatty acids they can also be tastier.

Stored seaweeds become tenderized by their own enzymes even in their dry state. Speedier tenderization can be achieved after light rehydration, which is used for example for some products of dulse (Palmaria palmata (Linnaeus) F.Weber & D.Mohr; Erhart and Cerier 2001). Some of the large brown seaweeds, such as Saccharina latissima (Linnaeus) C.E.Lane, C.Mayes, Druehl & G.W.Saunders (sugar kelp), exude significant amounts of slimy polysaccharides, such as alginate, as well as sweet-tasting mannitol. Although these substances have useful applications in the kitchen as hydrogels they are generally a nuisance when these seaweeds are used in salads or in soups that will become too slimy or too viscous, respectively.

Some Japanese products, like konbu tsukedani, which is simmered konbu, combines umami taste, a soft and slightly sticky texture, with a very pleasant tender mouthfeel.

Many commercial seaweed products focus on crispness. The best-known example is nori that is dried and toasted seaweed paper made of Porphyra/Pyropia spp. Nori is most prominently used for making rolled maki-zushi or to sprinkle in small pieces in the form of furikake over other dishes, e.g. cooked rice. Due to the dry seaweed’s natural capacity for binding water, such preparations involving nori must be consumed right away before the seaweed absorbs moisture (Figure 4).

Dried wild nori over poached oysters. Photo courtesy of Koji Shimumura.
Figure 4:

Dried wild nori over poached oysters.

Photo courtesy of Koji Shimumura.

Dried, roasted and deep-fried seaweeds of green, red, and brown varieties are valued for their crispness and can be used as snacks and even as candy and in desserts in cases where the seaweeds have been candied in sugar. Roasted or toasted seaweeds processed into flakes, granules, or powders are often used as spices and salt substitutes.

A special preparation of dulse (Palmaria palmata) has been promoted in recent years as a novel product, although it actually follows an old Scottish recipe: crisp seaweed “bacon.” It is a simple product based on dried and smoked fronds of dulse that have been deep fried. Its texture resembles fried pork bacon and with a proper smoked flavor it is an acceptable substitute. A Northern Ireland dulse sandwich has been a favorite for centuries. Dulse is crisped in a pan until it releases a bacon aroma and is then placed between two slices of buttered bread. The sandwich is served with a mug of strong tea (Figure 5).

Dried dulse (Palmaria palmata) collected in California. Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.
Figure 5:

Dried dulse (Palmaria palmata) collected in California.

Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.

Esthetics of seaweed presentations

The great variety in morphology and colors of seaweeds have fascinated not only scientists but also naturalists and collectors, as well as the public. It is mostly the smaller red seaweed species that are used to impart an esthetic appeal to dishes such as salads or as toppings to seafood servings. Although they are called “red” seaweeds, their colors vary substantially depending on the species and the degree of bleaching. Branched and stringy morphologies are in focus here, and species where the fronds have some degree of stiffness are preferred since they are less likely to collapse flatly in the presentation (Figure 6).

Hana tsunomata, farmed varieties of carrageen (Chondrus crispus Stackhouse) in four natural colors. Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.
Figure 6:

Hana tsunomata, farmed varieties of carrageen (Chondrus crispus Stackhouse) in four natural colors.

Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.

A variety of seaweeds can be used to add a spectrum of colors, morphologies, as well as taste nuances to a simple green salad. Crisp textures can pep up an otherwise slightly dull salad that lacks crunch. The easiest way to incorporate seaweeds into a green salad is to crush toasted nori, dulse, or wakame and sprinkle them over the salad leaves or to mix in thin strips of cooked and marinated algae.

Some varieties of small red seaweeds can be the esthetic crown on such servings, e.g. the delicate Japanese red alga funori (Gloiopeltis J.Agardh) or ogonori (Gracilaria spp.), which is a common red seaweed, some species of which are now considered invasive in large parts of Europe. Tosaka-nori (Meristotheca papulosa (Montagne) J.Agardh) is a very delicate variety of red seaweed species that comes in three different colors – white (shiro-tosaka), green (ao-tosaka), and red (aka-tosaka). As it is both crisp and colorful, it is very sought-after in salads and for decoration (Figure 7).

Red seaweeds with beautiful colors and interesting morphologies: Funori (Gloiopeltis spp.), ogonori (Gracilaria spp.), and tosaka-nori (Meristotheca papulosa). Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.
Figure 7:

Red seaweeds with beautiful colors and interesting morphologies: Funori (Gloiopeltis spp.), ogonori (Gracilaria spp.), and tosaka-nori (Meristotheca papulosa).

Photo courtesy of Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.

Modernist cuisine and gastronomic uses of seaweeds

The last two to three decades have witnessed an increasing level of interaction between science and gastronomy. Building on a long tradition, basically rooted in the fact that the kitchen is a laboratory and chefs in many ways work as experimental scientists, terms like molecular gastronomy, modernist cuisine, and gastrophysics have been put forward to describe this revival of culinary sciences on the one side and the professionalization of chefs’ mode of working on the other. This trend has also made its impact on the algal cuisine (Mouritsen 2012a, Mouritsen 2013a,b, Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2016, 2018).

Molecular gastronomy, the modernist cuisine, and gastrophysics

Chefs have in their kitchens started to use experimental equipment and materials well-known from science laboratories, such as sous vide equipment, Pacojets, distillation columns, thermo-controlled blenders, intelligent stoves, liquid nitrogen, hydrogels, etc. In some cases, chefs have been directly inspired in their work by scientific thinking and interaction with scientists, and some scientists on their part have turned their interest to culinary sciences. Moreover, several direct collaborations between chefs and scientists have influenced culinary craft and skills as well as fertilized scientific advancement within for example chemistry and physics. The advent of new terms like molecular gastronomy (Barham et al. 2010), modernist cuisine (Myhrvold 2010), gastrophysics (Mouritsen 2012a, Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2017, Spence 2017), or phycogastronomy (Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2018) are examples of this development.

In a paper on the application of gastrophysics to the algal cuisine, one of the present authors (Mouritsen 2012a) has described the goal of gastrophysics as the application of fundamental principles of physics, in particular soft matter physics, biophysical chemistry, and molecular biophysics, to problems dealing with food and eating. It was suggested that gastrophysics should focus on molecular aspects, as well as scientific mechanisms and explanations, and their relationship to gastronomy to a much higher degree than traditional food chemistry and food physics. The perspective of a wide range of possible research activities within gastrophysics should be gastronomy itself. More recently, it was described how gastrophysics plays a role in exploring the mouthfeel and the importance of the texture of food (Mouritsen 2016, Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2017). Since texture is so essential to the sensory perception and acceptance of seaweeds as food, gastrophysics is essential to the science of the algal cuisine.

Tradition and innovation: chefs enter the algal cuisine

The tradition of cooking with seaweeds is basically documented in a range of different types of books although there are of course some overlaps. Some books focus on the nutritional composition and possible health benefits of seaweeds, which in this context are often termed sea vegetables (Arasaki and Arasaki 1983, Pereira 2016, 2018). Another group of books springs from the holistic health-food movement and further developments (Bradford and Bradford 1986, Hara 1990, Lewallen and Lewallen 1996, Saulnier and Dieudonné 1998, Erhart and Cerier 2001, Arzel and Barbaroux 2003, Babel 2005, Fryer and Simmons 2005, Delacroix 2006, Cooksley 2007, Tylor 2008, Dougoud et al. 2010, Hampikian et al. 2013, Onishi et al. 2013, Brunner 2016, Kreischer and Schuttelaar 2016, Seaver 2016, Chamas and Caparrós 2017). A third group encompasses more traditional cookbooks (Madlener 1977, Ellis 1999, Chavannes 2002, Coisel 2003, Gusman and Ingrum 2003, Maderia 2007, Dougoud 2009a,b, Castro and Xatruch 2011, Dougoud 2013, Le Roux 2014, Bird 2015, Harrison 2015, Marfaing et al. 2016, Milne 2016, Dougoud 2017, Hartung 2017, Quéva and Le Joncour 2017, Siefert et al. 2017). Yet another group of books is focused on the nature of the seashore, harvesting, and the biology of seaweeds (Harbo 1988, McConnaughey 2002, Huston and Milne 2008, Wright 2010, Christian 2013, Warwick-Evans and van Berkel 2017). A number of books are devoted to various regional cuisines (Matignon 1992, Turner 1995, 2004, Le Roux 1998, Dubin and Ross 2008, Blumenthal et al. 2009, Le Tennier 2009, Rhatigan 2009, Garza and Garza 2012, Tinellis 2014, Davies 2016, Lambert 2016). Finally, there is a small group of monographs written by scientists who combine science, cooking, nutrition and health, as well as some technological applications of seaweeds (Mouritsen 2013a, Kilinç et al. 2013, Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2016, 2018, Druehl 2016, Ibáñez and Guerrero 2017, O’Connor 2017).

It is interesting that in recent years professional chefs up to the Michelin-star level have developed an interest in seaweed, often collaborating with scientists, e.g. in the Spanish project described below (Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2016, 2018).

When the field of molecular gastronomy first was embraced and promoted by chefs its hallmark was to a large extent the rediscovery and use of well-known hydrogels as gelation agents (Youssef 2013) to form spheres of gel with surprising liquids inside. These gelation agents, specifically alginate, agar, and carrageenan, were well-known in the food industry but their use was elevated to the Michelin star level by imaginative and inventive chefs. In most cases the customers at the molecular-gastronomy inspired restaurants were not aware that the new creations were based on extracts from different red and brown seaweeds. So-called “spherification” was made fashionable in the 1990s by the chef Ferran Adrià.

An example: high-level seaweed gastronomy in Spain

Probably one of the first avant-garde Spanish chefs to use seaweeds as an ingredient in his culinary creations was the three Michelin-starred Juan Mari Arzak over 50 years ago. Although he employed fresh Codium Stackhouse from the Cantabrian coast when cooking hake, at that time seaweeds (dried, pickled, or canned) were mostly imported from Asia (mainly from Japan) through Spanish companies such as Algamar or Porto-Muiños. Today, in the Cuisine Research Laboratory of his restaurant, the organoleptic properties and gastronomic potential of these marine plants are studied in depth, and they are being included as a garnish in 25% of their dishes, out of the approximately 50 of their dishes that are newly prepared each season.

The use of fresh, local seaweeds by top Spanish chefs took off around 2006, when the Galician company Porto-Muiños (founded in the late 1990s) started gathering seaweeds and offered their fresh product directly to fine-dining restaurants. Chef Ferran Adrià was the first one to use these fresh goods provided by Porto-Muiños as a key ingredient to elaborate his famous seaweed culinary creations at El Bulli after his crew had studied the alimentary properties and possibilities of Galician seaweeds.

One of the special dishes that could be enjoyed at El Bulli during the 2006/2007 season was navajas con laurencia (razor-shells with pepper dulse). According to Adrià “Seaweeds possess huge nutritional and culinary potentials. Spanish and Galician Governments should support both aquaculture and RTD. Seaweed revolution is to come”. Adrià was so delighted with the culinary potential of seaweeds that he included them within the category he considered “foods with soul”, that is, food commodities that, according to their own characteristics, have a paramount importance at El Bulli kitchen. This fact together with his description of the Galician coastline as “an enormous vegetable garden”, his huge charisma among cooks and food writers and critics, and his indisputable influence in the emergence of experimental cuisine in Spain over the past decades, triggered the use of the fresh local seaweeds in many Spanish fine restaurants led by renowned chefs. The book by Pérez-Lloréns et al. (2016, 2018) compiles 36 recipes from 16 avant-garde Spanish chefs which in total count almost 50 Michelin stars and use fresh seaweeds as a key ingredient. Table 2 shows some representatives of these culinary creations including several seaweed species that can be (or could be) enjoyed in the best fine-dining restaurants all over Spain.

Table 2:

Some culinary creations of the most avant-garde Spanish chefs, where seaweeds are key ingredients (Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2018).

A curious fact revealing the growing importance of seaweeds in the Spanish culinary firmament was that the poster announcing the gastronomic fair Madrid Fusion 2017, one of the most important events in the Spanish and international gastronomic market, was a beautiful picture showing fresh and colorful seaweeds. Besides the use of fresh seaweeds, Adrià is very well known also for his pioneering use of alginates (since 2003): so-called spherification, one of El Bulli’s most significant techniques that was very much used world-wide in the molecular cuisine.

Currently, one of Spain’s most important and youngest proponents of cooking with seaweed is Ángel León (alias the Chef of the Sea). The Laboratory of Gastronomic Research of Aponiente (the name of his restaurant) together with the University of Cádiz is involved in projects on seaweeds with a focus on their special culinary potential (Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2016, 2018). In words of Ángel León: “I’m more than passionate about the sea. I’m obsessed. But as we consume more seafood there is becoming less of it. In the future, if we want to taste the flavor of the sea we will have to turn to seaweeds.” León’s innovative techniques, based on 100% marine products, mostly using fish discards, plankton and seaweeds, led Aponiente to a new style of cuisine, a radical and risky culinary language based on ingredients that no one usually considers food and that happily culminated in 2017 with the achievement of his third Michelin star (Figure 8).

Quinoa plancton is one of the Angel León’s suggestions in the tasting menu of Restaurant Aponiente for the 2017/2018 season. The main ingredients are extruded (crisped) quinoa, squid, plankton (Tetraselmis chui Butcher) and Codium sp. Photo courtesy of Ángel León.
Figure 8:

Quinoa plancton is one of the Angel León’s suggestions in the tasting menu of Restaurant Aponiente for the 2017/2018 season.

The main ingredients are extruded (crisped) quinoa, squid, plankton (Tetraselmis chui Butcher) and Codium sp. Photo courtesy of Ángel León.

Today, seaweed consumption in Spanish homes is growing thanks to the gastronomic bloom driven by some celebrity chefs and because of the growing belief that the nutritional properties of seaweeds make them appropriate for inclusion as part of a healthy and well-balanced diet (Pérez-Lloréns et al. 2016, 2018). It has resulted in countless workshops and/or master classes such as that offered by the renowned Basque Culinary Center, where some avant-garde Spanish chefs are invited to give lectures such as “Seaweeds, the flavor of the sea into the kitchen.” It also positively contributed to the rise of new companies that gather and pack seaweeds such as Suralgas, la Huerta Marina or Conservas Mar de Ardora, retailers (Terra Verda or Ecoveritas) or public markets (La Mar de Algas in Madrid or Javier Morcillo in Valencia), as well as funding research projects focused on mariculture of seaweed species (Gracilariopsis longissima (S.G.Gmelin) Steentoft, L.M.Irvine & Farnham and Chondracanthus teedei (Mertens ex Roth) Kützing) with culinary potential such as the Ealga project in Cadiz Bay.

An example: the New Nordic Cuisine

The so-called New Nordic Cuisine was launched in 2004 by a manifesto signed by 12 influential and leading chefs from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The purpose of this manifesto was to create “a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favorably with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world.” In addition to a focus on purity, health, ethics, quality, and sustainability, the New Nordic Cuisine should be based on “cooking with ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly in Nordic climates, landscapes, and waters.” Needless to say, many of the Nordic chefs started to look for hidden treasures in the Nordic waters, including seaweeds.

Chef René Redzepi, a pioneer of the New Nordic Cuisine, expresses his philosophy as follows: “In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.” His famous restaurant Noma has been spearheading the rediscovery of terroir in the Nordic cuisine, including seaweeds from different places in the northern countries.

Another offshoot of the movement following in the wake of the New Nordic Cuisine manifesto is Nordic Food Lab that provides the framework for a culinary research project based on the idea of seeking out deliciousness in Nordic ingredients. It functions both as a kitchen and a laboratory in which one tries to combine a chef’s intuition and experience with scientific knowledge and methods, using a systematic approach. In 2012 the laboratory embarked on a program designed to study the potential of Nordic seaweeds for producing dashi (Mouritsen et al. 2012). Investigating different species from Nordic waters, in particular sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), dulse (Palmaria palmata), and graceful red weed (Gracilariopsis longissima), it was discovered that dulse is very rich in free glutamate (Mouritsen et al. 2012, 2013) and therefore can be used to make dashi with a substantial umami taste. Chef Lars Williams used this finding to create recipes for ice cream, fresh cheese, and bread by infusing with dulse. It is interesting to note that dulse (søl) is well-known from being used as food in Iceland a thousand years back.

The gastronomically most interesting and available seaweed species from Nordic waters, particularly the North Atlantic, are dulse (Palmaria palmata), oarweed (Laminaria digitata (Hudson) J.V.Lamouroux), tangleweed (Laminaria hyperborea (Gunnerus) Foslie), sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), winged kelp (Alaria esculenta (Linnaeus) Greville), and various wracks (Fucus spp.) as well as sea lettuce or string lettuce (Ulva spp.). It is these species the chefs are now bringing into the Nordic cuisine. A rarer species, pepper dulse (Osmundea pinnatifida (Hudson) Stackhouse), has also caught the attention of the chefs because of its strong smell and a taste that resembles that of truffles (Vertebrata lanosa (Linnaeus) T.A.Christensen).

It is a tradition in Japan to make strong liquors called shochu flavored with a 5% extract of konbu. Recently, a couple of Danish producers have introduced aqua vitae, gin, as well as dark beers and ales flavored with brown seaweeds like sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus Linnaeus). The special taste of the aqua vitae is derived from an extract of Icelandic dulse (Palmaria palmata) that imparts umami and a particular floral flavor to the drink.

A small Danish company has entered the international market by making a gourmet vegan alternative to fish roe. In 1988, Jens Møller discovered that, when certain enzymes were combined with seaweed, very small spheres were formed. Based on this discovery the company now produces a series of gourmet products called Cavi-art or Pearls of different sizes, colors, and flavors. Each of the small Cavi-art balls consists of a firm, elastic membrane, made from seaweed alginate, which encloses a liquid interior to which food coloring and a variety of taste substances are added, depending on the end use. The Pearls are to be used as a fish-roe substitute but can also be adapted for use in desserts by choosing sweet juices, such as those from lemon, passion fruit, or papaya when the pearls are formed. Cavi-art is a simple, smart application of spherification. Avant-garde chefs take credit for “inventing” the use of alginate to make spheres in the modernist cuisine. Perhaps they are not aware that Jens Møller had already made the discovery and brought it to market as a novel series of seaweed-based food products quite a few years earlier (Figure 9).

Cavi-art, a commercial product of alginate-based spherification that involves formation of small capsules of alginate gel with an encapsulated liquid. Photo courtesy of Jens Møller.
Figure 9:

Cavi-art, a commercial product of alginate-based spherification that involves formation of small capsules of alginate gel with an encapsulated liquid.

Photo courtesy of Jens Møller.

Phycogastronomy – a promise for the future

It is predicted that in 2050 there will be 10 billion people in the world. This rapid growth in population will imply a dramatic increase in the competition for natural resources and hence puts a focus on the sustainability of our food supplies in the context of economic as well as social, environmental, and political factors. This raises questions about how to distribute and exploit our available resources in a more sustainable fashion, not least when it comes to the world’s food supplies.

The oceans are in some senses a poorly exploited and poorly managed natural food resource both when it comes to fisheries and exploitation of sea plants and algae. Many fish species are endangered and overfished, and environmental factors put limits on the expansion of agriculture of fish and shellfish (SAPEA 2017). If we are to use the marine food resources in a better and more sustainable manner to feed a growing population with healthy and safe food we need to learn to consume marine food in a more diverse and insightful manner, including eating from lower trophic levels and limiting bycatch and waste. We must come to terms with eating more seafood directly rather than piping it through land animals as feed, thereby loosing typically 90% of the nutrients in each trophic level.

This is where the marine macroalgae come in, together with other little used marine species such as cephalopods (Mouritsen and Styrbæk 2018). In 2015 the UN passed an agenda Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN 2015), which also considers distribution and administration of fisheries and aquaculture with a focus on safety and human nutrition. Seaweeds are part of this agenda that will have to involve new strategies and technologies for expanding the aquaculture of seaweeds, most likely in ecologically sustainable, integrated multi-trophic cultures (Chopin 2017).

The crucial question is then: do we want to eat seaweeds? In many food cultures around the world this is obviously a silly question since they, as described above, have a rich tradition for using seaweeds in their food and cooking. It is less obvious in other cultures in which seaweeds may be considered as weird a foodstuff as cephalopods and insects for those who are not accustomed to eating such species. Seaweeds have been proclaimed from many sides to be future food, health food, and brain food (Dhargalkar and Pereira 2005). However, even though arguments can be presented that seaweeds are certainly very edible, nutritious and healthy (Mouritsen 2012b, Cornish et al. 2015), and can even be prepared as tasty food, it is not easy to change people’s food preferences. It is well known from public campaigns that, even if a certain diet is healthy, nutritious, and sustainable, people are not going to eat it unless it is delicious. Therefore, a focus on seaweed gastronomy is required to stimulate a motion in the direction of more people eating more seaweed-based food, and the center of attention has to be taste (Mouritsen 2017).

Nevertheless, while the practice of eating seaweeds as part of the normal diet has almost died out in the Western world, it can still be encountered here and there. For example, within Europe, seaweeds are firmly entrenched in the popular cuisines of Brittany, Wales, and Ireland. On Iceland, dulse is eaten in dried form as a snack or mixed into salads, bread dough, or curds, just as it was in the time of the sagas. And the pattern of consumption is on an upward trend, no doubt driven by an awareness of the beneficial effects of seaweeds on overall health.

In Europe, and particularly in Ireland, there are encouraging signs of a general revival of interest in cooking with seaweeds, even though this is still considered a bit quirky and exotic. In North America, eating seaweeds is also gaining in popularity, especially in California and Maine in the United States and British Columbia and Nova Scotia in Canada, where selected dried seaweeds are available in many supermarkets. Internet-based small businesses are emerging around the world, taking advantage of the easy shipping of dried goods.

At the level of gastronomy, seaweeds are making their way and we should be prepared for a new age of phycogastronomy. It has already started in several places, e.g. in Australia, Spain, and some Nordic countries. Many of today’s leading chefs have become fascinated with seaweeds and are experimenting with their tastes, textures, and colors in familiar dishes and in exciting new gastronomic creations. In many cases, this involves finding interesting ways to come up with recipes that fuse several cuisines or that revitalize national dishes and the food cultures of former times.

Famous chefs, for example Dan Barber or Ángel León, and their creations, often based on a vision of a more sustainable, no-waste cuisine, and use of little used and often overlooked ingredients, like seaweed, provide a motor and motivation for more ordinary people, by a kind of trickle-down effect, to start using seaweeds in their daily cooking. The ordinary consumer would, however, also need appropriate and stimulating information about seaweeds as foods and how to prepare them. Cookbooks, media-communications, and recipes (e.g. on-line) will here serve an important purpose. We also have to involve the children (Bartual and Pérez-Lloréns, 2016, Mouritsen 2017) by introducing seaweeds in the list of food ingredients used in their domestic science classes as well as using seaweeds as a study object in the science and biology classrooms. One way to start is by admiring the seaweeds for their beauty, colors, shapes, and fascinating life: play with them and sense them with all your five basic senses.

With its complexity in flavor and texture, seaweed is the culinary trend taking diners’ palates to another dimension. (Richard Cornish, Australian food critic).


The work by OGM was supported by Nordea-fonden via a centre grant to the national Danish centre Taste for Life. JLPLL acknowledges the support of the Junta de Andalucia Excellence Project Ealga (RNM-1235).


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Article note

This article is part of the special issue series of Botanica Marina: Seaweed resources of the world: a 2020 vision, starting publication in Botanica Marina 2019, vol. 62, issue 3. The series will be guest-edited by Alan T. Critchley, Anicia Hurtado, Leonel Pereira, Melania Cornish, Danilo Largo and Nicholas Paul.

About the article

Ole G. Mouritsen

Ole G. Mouritsen, PhD DSc, is a biophysicist and professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the University of Copenhagen. His fields of research include computational statistical physics, membrane biophysics, and culinary sciences, specifically gastrophysics. His is currently interested in exploring the use of macroalgae and cephalopods within gastronomy.

Prannie Rhatigan

Prannie Rhatigan MB, BCh, BAO, MICGP, D.Obs, B.A hons (psychology) is a medical doctor and general practitioner working as a senior medical officer in health protection, public health medicine. Her work with seaweeds stems from a lifetime spent on the north-west coast of Ireland, harvesting, cooking organically and gardening with seaweeds, and she has always been fascinated by the connections between food and health. Her work with seaweeds is lifelong, personal and unfunded, and is separate from her medical career.

José Lucas Pérez-Lloréns

José Lucas Pérez-Lloréns, PhD, is a biologist and Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Cádiz (Spain). His field of research encompasses from seagrass and seaweed ecology and ecophysiology to seaweed aquaculture. In addition, he is very much interested in the culinary ethnology of seaweeds including its use in the avant-garde cuisine.

Received: 2018-04-17

Accepted: 2018-09-14

Published Online: 2018-12-07

Published in Print: 2019-06-26

Conflict of interest statement: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest regarding this article.

Citation Information: Botanica Marina, Volume 62, Issue 3, Pages 195–209, ISSN (Online) 1437-4323, ISSN (Print) 0006-8055, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/bot-2018-0041.

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