Cinemagoers in Japan are likely to buy at the entrance a box with six sorts of edible seaweed to munch as they watch the screen. Yes, edible seaweed is a big thing in Japan, Arthur Reynolds, a former director of BIM, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, tells us. Seaweed as a fertiliser for the land, as a source of thickeners or binding agents and gelling ingredients in, say, toothpaste or even ice cream, most of us have come across at times, without giving it much thought, but now we are told that for hundreds of years seaweed is, so to speak, not a weed, but a comestible vegetable. BIM, in one of two posters on the subject, also reminds us that "during Ireland's disastrous potato famine of 1847-48, seaweed was used commonly as food, which led to negative associations of seaweed with poverty and famine. This hard shaken image has gradually changed in Ireland as people awoke to the realisation that seaweeds were not a poor man's alternative but rather are superior to many land-based vegetables as a source of minerals, trace elements and vitamins."
Does this mean that in the near future, instead of carrots or beans, we may be offered on the menu in our restaurants several varieties of vegetables which grow under the salt water, rather than over the soil? Indeed, maybe those frequent Japanese or Chinese establishments may be saying: "Where does he live? Of course seaweeds are regularly dished up at such-and-such a cafe or restaurant."
The only seaweed most people came across in the past, anyway, was dulse or dilisk, and more recently carrageen moss which you had as a dessert. Of course, the gathering of seaweed by hand for fertiliser and alginate production has gone on for many years around our coasts but our production, according to BIM, is small - around 45,000 tons annually. How much, over the centuries, you might wonder, has been put into the making of those fields on Aran of which we hear so often? In short, BIM sums up, most people eat or use some seaweed product every day, every day in life, even down to shampoos and shower gels. "Sea vegetables are a healthy addition to any diet as they contain an astonishing amount of vitamins, minerals and trace elements."
Lower levels of hypertension, cancer and other ailments are found where the consumption of sea vegetables is high. Work goes on at the Martin Ryan Institute of the National University of Ireland, Galway. More another day.