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On a calm afternoon on Wellington’s south coast, seaweed forager Lea Bramley cuts off a few leaves of wakame (Undaria pinnatifida) from the jetty at Karaka Bay.
Handing a sliver to the young man next to her, she urges him to smell it, taste it, and roll it round in his mouth.
“I was blown away to be honest,” says Chris Charteris, co-founder of Kāpiti-based gin distillery Imagination, and one of the brains behind its new wakame seaweed gin, which was launched in February.
“Lea had introduced me to five or six types of seaweed. Some had a gluey mouth feel and a bitter taste. In contrast, wakame has this savoury flavour that’s like a healthy, watery sip of the ocean.”
That’s why seaweed, particularly wakame, has been popular in kitchens throughout China, Korea, and Japan for thousands of years. And it’s why the ocean vegetable is taking off in Wellington, too, says Lea.
Living at Tora on the Wairarapa’s south-east coast, Lea has experimented with seaweed for more than 30 years. One of the first people to get the official okay to commercially harvest wild seaweed from the Wairarapa coast, she’s now one of a few fishers permitted to commercially harvest wakame in Wellington (it’s considered a pest species, and has to be carefully collected to avoid spread).
Ten years ago, her obsession with edible seaweed took her to Sligo, Ireland, to meet the author of The Irish Seaweed Kitchen, Prannie Rhatigan. “In Ireland, dried seaweed is a common pub snack you have with a pint of Guiness.”
She collaborated with chef and former Wairarapa local Al Brown, writing the seaweed foraging tips in his 2011 cookbook Stoked.
“I eat it every day – it’s just so good for you. I put it in stir fry. I bake it in bread. With Al, we cooked freshly-caught pāua stuffed in bull kelp on a beach fire – and ate the lot. How good is that? Seaweed is full of every vitamin, nutrient, and trace element known to humans. Our clean water and strong ocean currents means New Zealand’s the best country to grow, harvest, and eat it.”
As for its taste? Lea says: “It’s that musky background umami flavour that Japan made so famous. It blends in and gels with other flavours. To me, it’s just all kinds of wow.”
All up, there are around 1,000 different kinds of seaweed in New Zealand, according to NIWA scientist Wendy Nelson.
Seaweeds each have distinct properties and uses. Some, such as brown seaweeds, contain alginates that can be made into a gum paste for dental moulds. Others, like the red seaweeds known as nori in Japan and karengo in Māori, are used in sushi and bush kai. Green seaweed has become a regular on supermarket shelves as seasoning and as thin, cripsy snacks.
Kārori chef Joe McLeod (Tūhoe) grew up in Te Urewera eating native seaweed and still cooks with it today.
“I have imported wakame in my pantry. I eat it with miso soup. I love to fry karengo in butter and eat it with smoked eel and steamed baby potatoes.”
“Back home, you’ll find many of us who are a bit landlocked source seaweed from our coastal cousins, swapping it for delicacies we find in the ngāhere. The harder seaweeds we use on hangi. We stuff bull kelp with kaimoana, so your fish absorbs those extra umami flavours. The translucent sea lettuces are popular on salads.”
Wairarapa fisher Claire Edwards, (Cap#73) meanwhile, is a big fan of Ecklonia radiata from Tora, which she describes as New Zealand’s answer to the wildly popular Japanese kombu.
As Tora Collective, she and her partner Troy supply fresh seaweed, pāua, and crayfish to consumers and restaurants throughout New Zealand.
“Ecklonia has this insane rich, savoury taste, making it perfect as seasoning. It’s completely moreish.”
On the Kāpiti Coast, Awatoru Wild Food’s Scott McNeil forages for free-floating, beach-cast seaweed about once a month, regularly providing it to local restaurants such as Shepherd, Hiakai, and Charley Noble. He’s also set up a commercial partnership to farm native seaweeds and wakame at Mahanga Bay.
“I can only see demand for fresh, New Zealand-grown seaweed increasing. Chefs use it as oven bags to flavour fish and tenderise wild meats like venison. They’re grinding it into seasoning. Blanched, some seaweeds look like pounamu on the plate.”
The Food Lab’s head chef Fifi Leong recently sampled Scott’s seaweed, mixing it with miso and wasabi pastes to create whipped butter for Charley Noble.
“I love the strong ocean flavour, but I’d say eating seaweed still scares a lot of Kiwis. To me that’s just a lack of understanding. There’s a buzz about it now. It might take a bit of education. But I can see a time when it’s a staple on our dinner plates.”