The changing role of seaweed in gastronomy

Seaweed has been a part of people's diet for thousands of years. Indeed, the first traces of seaweed consumption by humans can be traced back to 14,000 years ago. Over the centuries, they have managed to find their place in gastronomy. In this article, you will discover how their use developed.

Seaweed consumption in the world through the centuries

Seaweed was particularly consumed by coastal dwellers around the world. The Celts and Vikings consumed certain seaweeds during their long journeys, particularly dulse, which protected them from scurvy, among other things. In North America and Europe, seaweed was never forgotten in times of famine by coastal populations. In Ireland, during the Great Famine (1845-1852), farmers used seaweed to make fertiliser for their fields or as a supplement to their food. The Inuit, the Hawaiians as well as the Chileans and Peruvians also consumed seaweed. When the conquistadores arrived in Peru and Chile, they tried to prevent the local communities from eating the seaweed. Eventually, they added it to their own diet. Another part of the world has always been attracted to this food: Asia, which nowadays consumes the most seaweed.

The place of seaweed in Asia

In Asia, the consumption of seaweed is widespread. In Japan, it has been part of the culinary culture for thousands of years. In 701, Japanese law stipulated that the precious seaweeds Wakame and Nori could be used to pay taxes. It was the favourite food of the imperial court. Leftover imperial food was sold on the market. Today, the Japanese consume a wide variety of seaweeds, including Nori, Wakame, Kombu and Agar-agar. Nori is used to wrap sushi, while Wakame is often used in salads and soups.

Red seaweed which allows to have agar-agar
Wakame Seaweed
Nori seaweed - © Yves Quéré - Bretalg
Kombu seaweed

In China, the consumption of seaweed dates back more than 2,000 years. Seaweed is used in many traditional Chinese dishes, including soups and stir-fried vegetable dishes. Seaweed has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat diseases.

In Korea, the consumption of seaweed also dates back centuries. Jeju Island in South Korea is famous for the Haenyeo (or "sea women"). They harvested seaweed and molluscs from depths of more than 10 metres while scuba diving. Part of their harvest was given to the authorities. Seaweed is a common ingredient in Korean cuisine, especially in fermented vegetable dishes such as kimchi. Seaweed is also used to make miyeok-guk, a traditional Korean soup served for holidays and celebrations.

Kimchi - Jeremy Keith . CC BY 2.0
Miyeok-guk - image Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Millennia ago, seaweed consumption in Asia was more common among coastal populations who had easy access to these foods. However, seaweed was consumed at different levels of society, both by the rich and the poor. In China, it was considered a food of choice by the nobility and the upper class, but it was also consumed by peasants and the lower classes.

The development of the use of seaweed in French gastronomy

In France, seaweed began to be popularised in gastronomy in the 1970s, mainly through the efforts of Breton chefs who sought to rediscover the traditional ingredients of their region. At that time, seaweed consumption was still relatively rare outside Brittany, but it gradually gained popularity in the following decades. Today, seaweed is widely used in French cuisine, whether to add flavour and texture to dishes, or to create new and innovative seaweed-based recipes. In Loctudy, you can find this food in many dishes at the AC Le Levier restaurant. The development of seaweed in French gastronomy is explained by the development of a desire to eat better, to have a more sustainable and environmentally friendly diet. Seaweed is a renewable marine resource and can be grown in a sustainable way, making it an ecological and responsible ingredient for cooking. It is also very popular because of its high nutritional value and umami taste. This flavour is characterised by its depth and length in the mouth, but also by its roundness.

Breton cake with Wakame made by the restaurant AC Le Levier © GP

Here are some examples of recipes: