Sea algae at low tide along the Irish coast. Seaweed was long a part of Irish cuisine. Nutrient-rich, it helped some survive the Great Famine. Irish cooks reviving the practice say it’s not just good for you – it’s a zap of flavor from the sea. AdventurePicture/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Speak of the Emerald Isle, and you picture verdant rolling hillsides. But there’s another green bounty — not just on Ireland’s soil, but off its coast. We’re talking about seaweed. And if some Irish have their way, it’ll be making its way back onto plates.
OK, OK. We couldn’t resist, but yes, not all seaweed is green. The algae (yep, it’s algae) is divided into red, green and brown varieties — all of which grow in Irish waters. As is perhaps unsurprising in a land with such a high craggy-coastline-to-country ratio, the Irish have a long history of eating seaweed. The reddish-brown fronds of dulse (Palmaria palmata), also known as dillisk or duileasg, were a nutrient-rich supplement for early diets, and Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), or carrageenan, thickened milk into pudding. But the practice gradually declined.
Seaweed was eaten to keep alive during the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, and for many in Ireland, it never quite shook this association as a vestige of an older, poorer time. It’s sold as a snack food at the centuries-old Ould Lammas Faire in Northern Ireland, but as something of a quaint tie-in to the festival’s past (much like Renaissance Fair-only al fresco turkey legs). More often than not, seaweed was harvested not to be eaten itself, but to fertilize the fields to better grow other crops.
But in Ireland — as in many places — people are looking to change that. Prannie Rhatigan of Streedagh, County Sligo, first started teaching about seaweed in the 1990s. “When I would ask participants what seaweeds they knew of or had eaten, most looked at me blankly. A few people volunteered dulse or Irish moss,” Rhatigan remembers. “Now when I give courses, everyone has eaten a wide range.”