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An Interview with 'Captain Seaweed'

An Interview with 'Captain Seaweed'

Meet Charles Yarish, a university professor who's been campaigning for the use of marine vegetables for the last 35 years.

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Seaweed seems to be everywhere these days, even as a pizza topping. A new Danish scientific study says we should be eating the nutrient rich ingredient on a regular basis and Charles Yarish, professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut, has no doubt: it’s just a matter of putting them in the hands of a a good chef. Yarish has been preaching for introducing marine vegetables in our diet for 35 years, they actually call him “Captain Seaweed.” 

Could you please provide some information and data about seaweed consumption worldwide?
The global seaweed industry is estimated to have an annual value of over US$6 billion (over 26 million tons), and nearly 60% of it is for food products (FAO 2015).

The main reason for the culinary cultural shift from seafood to seaweeds seems to be the impoverishment of the ocean: is that it?
The wild capture fish production has been saturated in the 80s. It is expected that more than half of fish production will be provided by aquaculture by 2030. Most of seaweeds production come from aquaculture.

What are the nutrients found in seaweeds?
Vitamin C, to start with. Nori, for instance, has more vitimin C than an orange, gram to gram. Some microelements like iodine. Essential aminoacids. And then proteins: many of the red seaweeds have a very high (protein) content. The darker they are in color, the higher they are in protein. But watch out: Asian producers often roast them, and in that case the color is not a good indication of protein quality. Some of the brown seaweeds, such as the sugar kelp, are particularly rich in antioxidants. And so on. You're getting a high quality food supply right there.

So healthy... but is it really true that they are good for the taste as well?
Absolutely! As long as you have a good Chef. I have a friend, the world-renown Chef Bun Lai, owner of the unique restaurant Miya's Sushi in Connecticut: the way he prepares some of these seaweeds is phenomenal. You'll find a menu you can't find anywhere else: he likes to work with naturally occurring invasive seaweeds, and that to me is a win-win for the environment.

Any other recommandation?
Chef Jeff Trombetta. He has now finished his book – which will be probably published by the summer - of 100 different recipes with kelp, common throughout all the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. And I can tell you this, first hand, my 9 year old grandson last summer accompanied me to a lunch he made, and he went back to me and said: “Grandpa, this was delicious, can I get more?” The chef was able to get that taste to a 9-year-old, a typical American 9-year-old... In fact, I'm really not enthusiastic about bringing Asian cuisine into Western culture, I think Western chefs are creative enough to make seaweeds taste delicious and use an approach that Westerners are more familiar with.

What is the taste of seaweed?
We can get a seaweed that will fit each of your different tastebuds. Umami is just one of them. There is a taste that you get in some of the seaweeds that is enhanced by spices you can add. The sugar kelp for instance is one of my favourite, it has a high sugar content, it's delicious! It's very versatile. For instance Ocean Approved came up with fresh, frozen kelp noodle. Bren Smith, who I helped a lot as I felt it was a need to have an outreach component in my reasearch program, became a grower working with some of the top chefs in New York and he's developing a whole series of products from sugar kelp.

Talking about the use of seaweeds in the food industry, how does the present situation look?
It's going slowly, and people who are innovating (like the ones I mentioned) have realized it's a slow process...But they are going in the service sector, and in many colleges and university kitchens...

How can we introduce more seaweeds in diets and menus?
You have to work with food specialists and chefs and show them the product is different from the Asian product, the tastes are different and you can always relate where it's coming from. It has to do with education. But also, you have to have good cookbooks for Western cuisine.

How is seaweed integrated in sustainable agricolture?
Most of the cultivated seaweeds come from Asia: China, Korea and Japan. To a lesser extent, some is now coming from Chile. You always have to ask yourself: where are they cultivated? When they are cultivated in open-water systems, they reflect what's in the water. In Western countries we are working towards water quality and sustainable energy; we're interested in making sure our food comes from high quality environments and that's why in Western countries we could potentially have the competitive edge, because we have the potential to produce a high-quality product. 

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