Kelp is the miracle food of the future. It will solve so many problems, you don’t even know. For starters, it grows in the ocean, which is awesome, because there’s lots of room there. Plus, it can restore damaged marine ecosystems and revive collapsed fisheries. It can help prevent algal blooms. It absorbs carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which means it can help combat climate change. Finally, a robust kelp farm provides a fantastic ecosystem that can protect vulnerable coastal areas from dangerous storm surges. Win, win, win. Dana Goodyear tells us why the ocean is the farm of the future in her New Yorker expose on kelp:
The ocean covers seventy per cent of the earth and produces less than two per cent of our food. To grow the rest, we use almost forty per cent of the world’s land and nearly three-quarters of our fresh water.
Heed the dire warning! Yes, kelp is a form of seaweed and seaweed is algae, but mushrooms are fungi and we consider them delicious. So it’s really all about attitude. Kelp is perfectly edible and the kelp byproduct alginate has been an essential thickening ingredient in ice cream and salad dressing for decades. Even better, scientists are gathering evidence to prove that alginate helps prevent absorption of fat. So—yes—eating kelp may keep you thin. What kelp really needs to spread this news is PR. Maybe this adorable harbor seal can help:
Nevermind the public relations, you say, how does kelp taste? Well, let’s make another analogy: Everyone and her mother eats kale these days but no one would ever confuse it with a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Moreover, you are already familiar with seaweed from your beloved California rolls. The gray-ish papery nori that your rice and veggies are wrapped in is seaweed (a kelp relative). Granted, this is a utilitarian use of kelp–a side note on your plate instead of the main attraction. But if kelp were the main attraction, we’d be reaping health benefits galore. The sea vegetable is chock full of iodine, calcium, antioxidants, and other minerals we need for optimal functioning. It packs a punch of goodness. For that reason, it’s a popular nutritional supplement in pill form. So, to answer your question about taste–which is subjective–let’s just say there’s room for innovation.
The Miracle Crop
Kelp grows quickly, up to 18 inches a day. You don’t need to water it. You don’t need to prepare soil or do much in the way of fertilizing. It requires little investment of labor. It grows when the rains don’t come and it grows when the monsoons inundate the land.
Kelp forests are dynamic ecosystems, and the kelp itself can be used as either food or fuel. Maintaining healthy kelp forests is an essential part of maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. Even if kelp doesn’t make its way to the dinner table, it can still be a part of the food chain. Rich in nitrogen, it can be farmed as a natural fertilizer for land crops, helping replenish the nitrogen that is leeched out by heavy-duty agriculture. It becomes part of a closed-loop nitrogen cycle. More good news!
Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Co., off the coast of Stony Creek, Connecticut, boasts a harvest of between 30 and 60 tons of kelp per year and provides a thriving marine environment for hundreds of plant and animal species. He calls this a 3D ocean farm, because he uses the entire water column, growing different crops at different depths. The goal of 3D farming is to restore the oceans rather than deplete them, as traditional fishing and aquaculture have done over the past century.
As a food, kelp is typically harvested and dried. This makes it easy to store and ship. Cooks use it as a garnish or add it to dough for crackers and pasta. Fresh kelp is harder to find, tends to be expensive, and is used as a vegetable. It can be a soup stock or used in salads. Different species of kelp have different tastes and textures. Kelp is common in Asian cooking and needs to find the star chef that can help it transition into the darling of American haute cuisine.
One of the more common varieties of kelp, if there is such a thing, is dulce. This red kelp variety has long been harvested and eaten in Ireland and the UK. It’s usually sold dried and has a chewy texture similar to jerky. Or you can fry it up like bacon, and make a DLT with it for the vegan in your family.
But let’s say you want to ease into your new diet. You can take a cue from the trendy toddlers in the Bay Area, who are reportedly addicted to SeaSnax. They’re the paleo-friendly roasted seaweed chip. Check your local food co-op for availability.
Or check out Ocean’s Halo chips. They’re vegan, gluten-free, organic, and come in compostable packaging. Sales are going through the roof.
Let’s say you’re down with crunchy seaweed and looking to take the next step in your green-blue diet. Yet you don’t live near any trendy restaurants with a kelp-based menu and you’re beyond the sushi stage. How can you experiment with this superfood at home? Find recipes galore at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables: candied kelp, kelp hot potatoes, sesame carrots with kelp, and soothing seaweed soup. You can order many varieties of fresh and dried kelp right on their website. Maybe you can impress your family at Thanksgiving by going one step beyond the traditional Tofurky. A side dish of spruced-up kale will be food for thought and thanks that you’re not serving this: