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The Next Big Thing: Sea Vegetables

The Next Big Thing: Sea Vegetables
Expect to see seaweed on the menu

The Fancy Food Show in San Francisco is the West Coast’s largest food and beverage trade show. This is where the next big thing shows up first. In recent years, it was kale, kombucha, and almost anything that tastes like bacon. This year, it’s seaweed.

The trade show excitement didn’t surprise the folks at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, where they’ve been cooking up their own food innovations with seaweed. They’re using a succulent red alga called dulse that grows wild on wave-swept shores of the north Atlantic and Pacific coasts. As a sea “vegetable,” dulse has been used for centuries in the local foods of Ireland, Iceland, and Scandinavia. It’s nutritious, fast growing, and, when it’s fried, they say it tastes like bacon.

Chris Langdon, an aquaculture researcher at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, began growing dulse in the lab to feed abalone as part of his shellfish polyculture research. Over the past 15 years, Langdon has developed a patented strain of dulse (Palmaria mollis) that he grows in bubbling vats of cold seawater just outside his office. Looking like a translucent red lettuce, Langdon’s cultured dulse grows faster than wild dulse. The abalone love it. But more to the point, so does Chuck Toombs.

Chris Langdon holding dulse

Chris Langdon, who leads research in shellfish aquaculture at Oregon State University, has been breeding new varieties of dulse at Hatfield Marine Science Center for several years. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

As food for people, dulse is an excellent source of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, and it contains up to 16 percent protein by dry weight. That inspired Toombs, a professor in OSU’s College of Business, who came to Langdon looking for a project for his marketing students. “Dulse is a super food, with twice the nutritional value of kale,” Toombs said with bright-eyed excitement. “And OSU has developed a variety that can be farmed, with the potential for a new industry on the Oregon coast.”

Toombs took his enthusiasm to OSU’s Food Innovation Center in downtown Portland. There, the product development team began to cook up a vision for dulse as a primary ingredient for a slew of new foods. Langdon delivered a cooler full of fresh dulse, and food scientists Qingyue Ling and Sarah Masoni got busy, directing the creative energy of two Saturday Academy students, Isaac Morrise and Emily Highkin, to see what could be created from Langdon’s seaweed.

If you think seaweed is only used in sushi, think again. Food manufacturers use processed seaweeds as ingredients in many foods, from ice cream to salad dressing. At the Fancy Food Show, seaweeds were prominently featured in chips, crackers, and salads. Masoni and Ling saw the potential. So did their colleagues at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, who helped get Langdon’s farmed dulse recognized as a specialty crop by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jason Ball

Jason Ball, a research chef at the Food Innovation Center in Portland, prepares dishes made with dulse to be taste-tested by the general public. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

“This is a huge step forward,” said Michael Morrissey, the OSU director of the Food Innovation Center. “Until now, there had never been a seafood included on the specialty crop list.” This meant that the Food Innovation team could apply for a specialty crop grant.

The grant funds helped bring Jason Ball onto the project. A research chef and self-described culinologist, Ball had been working at the University of Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, where he was helping to reinvent Nordic cuisine focused on local ingredients. Now at the Food Innovation Center, Ball has a similar challenge: to help expand Pacific Northwest cuisine. His first assignment is dulse.

At the Nordic Food Lab, dulse is foraged from the wild. At OSU, because Langdon’s strain of dulse is cultured in tanks of seawater, it’s consistent in quality, available year round, and harvested without impact on fragile intertidal habitats. Aquaculture also makes it possible for Langdon to develop new varieties for new culinary uses.

Ball is pushing the envelope, testing dulse veggie burgers, trail mix, and even dulse beer. Working directly with Langdon, Ball can experiment with different strains that have different flavors and attributes. With fresh dulse, he’s looking for a tender chewiness and slightly salty finish. “Pan-fried,” he says, “dulse can be light and crispy with a savory saltiness, like bacon.”

Dulse rice crackers

Crispy dulse rice crackers are one of several concoctions the Food Innovation Center is testing with consumers. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Anxious to see this savory crispiness make it to the marketplace, Toombs helps deliver fresh dulse from Langdon’s Newport lab to Ball’s Portland kitchen each week. Ball created 14 prototype dulse products, tested them with consumers, and narrowed the field to the top five for further testing—trail mix, rice crackers, salad dressing, sesame seed chips, and smoked dulse popcorn peanut brittle.

Meanwhile, Toombs’s graduate students are preparing a marketing plan for this hot new line of specialty foods. Among the many things they’ll consider is how to scale production from a few tanks at Langdon’s lab to a potential new aquaculture industry for coastal communities. With a plant breeder, a production facility, a research chef, a product development team, a consumer sensory lab, and a classroom full of MBA students, OSU has the entire supply chain to take dulse from production to plate within a year.

“There are few places in the world with this much collaborative talent from start to finish,” Toombs said.

And did I mention that it tastes like bacon?