Seaweed On Your Dinner Plate: The Next Kale Could Be Kelp : The Salt Why are chefs adopting sea greens in their cuisine? They're tasty and nutritious, and growing them is good for the planet. Maine's budding seaweed business is boosting an endangered coastal economy.
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Seaweed On Your Dinner Plate: The Next Kale Could Be Kelp

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Seaweed On Your Dinner Plate: The Next Kale Could Be Kelp

Seaweed On Your Dinner Plate: The Next Kale Could Be Kelp

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So step aside kale - but there is a new superfood on the scene. And its boosters want to convince you to eat more kelp. Fred Bever of Maine Public Radio follows a trail of a fledgling market for fresh seaweed farmed in America.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: From a small skiff out on Maine's coastal Damariscotta River, Peter Fisher and Peter Arnold winch up a rope that's heavy with floppy sheets of filmy, glistening kelp.

PETER FISHER: Wow. Well, that's starting look really good.

BEVER: They set tiny starter plants of three types of seaweed here in September for their new venture, Main Fresh Sea Farms. They marvel at the kelp's speedy growth, including stalks or stipes.

FISHER: Look at the length of those stipes.

PETER ARNOLD: These have been growing really fast. Some of them are well over 10 feet.

BEVER: Fisher and Arnold have both been working on the ocean for decades, and they've watched the decline of many traditional fisheries in Maine. They imagine a new industry harnessing the ready-made infrastructure and skills of the state seafaring communities farming fresh sea greens.

ARNOLD: No one was really doing fresh, at least here in this market. So we thought that's an opening.

BEVER: The greens are selling for up to $15 a pound. Americans are familiar with dried seaweed imported from Asia for sushi and snacks. And people have foraged for wild seaweeds for centuries. But now a much more active effort to farm seaweeds in the U.S. is afoot. And some believe it's the forefront of a food revolution.

BARTON SEAVER: You know what? Kelp is the new kale.

BEVER: Barton Seaver directs Harvard's Healthy and Sustainable Food program.

SEAVER: Watch out because it's coming. And it'll be everywhere, I say, within a decade.

BEVER: The virtues of macroalgae are so many in Seaver's eyes. They require no fertilizer, no pesticides, no fresh water, no land. Their nutritional profile is admirable, he says, providing healthy doses of iodine as well as calcium and other micronutrients, protein, soluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. And seaweed's benefits aren't just for humans. It's quick growth means quick carbon dioxide uptake, which can reduce ocean acidification. Seaver says it's not just a sustainable crop. It's restorative.

SEAVER: We're really beginning to investigate and discover food production methods that allow us to restore and heal environments. And that's exciting, and it's delicious.

BEVER: But is it delicious?

NEAL HARDEN: I grew up in Maine, and this is, you know, what you used to abuse your younger sister on the beach, whipping her with a kelp (laughter) or what you smell on the beach, you know, rotting in the sun. So...

BEVER: Despite such memories, chef Neal Harden likes seaweed a lot. He's been looking for a source of fresh ocean greens for the menu at a soon-to-open vegetarian version of New York City's Michelin-rated ABC Kitchen. He's shipped in the main product to make a fettuccine with spring vegetables and kelp. Brownish when fresh, the cut kelp turns bright green when he blanches it.

HARDEN: It brings a sort of - a brininess and this, like, oceanic flavor that you normally don't taste in that cuisine. So I think it's special in that way.

This dish has so much umami between the giant handful of mushrooms I just threw in there and the seaweed, it's good.

BEVER: The collective American palate may still take some time to fully embrace farmed U.S. seaweed. But the industry is expanding in Maine and elsewhere. And even if the seaweed revolution hasn't quite arrived yet, like the kelp in the Damariscotta River, it's showing some pretty rapid growth. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.

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