Seaweed is gaining attention as a nutritious and climate-smart food. And yet, there’s very little that we know about local seaweed, and how it is consumed in India. Ranjana Sundaresan attempts to uncover this mystery.
It’s a bit strange to me how little attention seaweed gets in India outside of Asian restaurants. You can walk into a supermarket and find sriracha and wasabi mayo on the shelf, but for seaweed, you’ve got to make a trip to Amazon, and scroll through all the fertiliser products before finding the edible stuff.
Seaweed—a rather reductive name for the incredibly diverse group of marine algae—has been in use as a food for millennia, particularly along coastal areas. Earliest records of it being eaten date back to about 2,500 years ago in China. Today, seaweed has become one of the trendiest and possibly most versatile ingredients in the world’s flora arsenal. Its appeal also comes from the fact that seaweed has a strong ability for carbon sequestration from the ocean, and so is being touted as a climate-smart food.
Presence in Indian waters
There are more than 840 identified species of seaweed in India’s coastal waters, of which 51% are red algae, 26% are green algae, and the remaining are brown algae. Edible species include Acanthophora, Gracilaria, Sargassum, and Ulva genuses, according to marine conservationist and seaweed expert Gabriella D’Cruz, who is based in Goa.
“In Goa, most of the seaweed is edible. It’s just the flavour profile that deters people from eating them. For example, the species Dictyota, while edible, is so incredibly bitter that it acts as a deterrent. Then there’s Padina (sea fan or peacock’s tail), which is also quite bitter and the texture is a little strange,” says Gabriella.
Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are especially rich in various seaweed species and these regions also lead in organised cultivation, though this remains woefully limited. There are small-scale seaweed processing plants in parts of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, manufacturing ingredients like agar, alginate, and carrageenan, used in multiple industries. Parts of Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa are also known to have rich seaweed beds, and there is growing support from state governments and ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) to develop these into farms.
Seaweed cultivation in India was introduced in the late 1990s, when the species Kappaphycus alvarezii, native to the Philippines, was introduced along the coast of Mandapam in Tamil Nadu by CMFRI. Just five grams of seed material resulted in numerous seaweed farms along a 100km coastline in the area. The prolific nature of Kappaphycus and its promotion as a source of revenue to lift marginalised coastal women out of poverty is perhaps one of the main drivers for its success, and why there is greater investment in seaweed farms by the state and local administrations.
However, recent studies into Kappaphycus have found that it is an invasive species, and may be in competition with reefs. With this awareness, newer initiatives are focusing on native species. Lakshadweep, which has identified seaweed farming as its next major developmental driver, has launched a massive pilot farming project in nine of its inhabited islands with the help of the CMFRI.
The species being farmed here are the indigenous red algae Gracilaria edulis and Acanthophora spicifera. They are being cultivated on around 2,500 bamboo rafts which are expected to benefit 100 families that are part of 10 women’s self-help groups across different islands. Studies in the region found that Lakshadweep has the potential to produce nearly 30,000 tonnes of dry seaweed every year, worth INR75 crore by farming just 1% of its total lagoon area.
Gabriella, who runs a consultancy called The Good Ocean, has also set up India’s first native seaweed farms in Goa and Karnataka growing local Gracilaria and Sargassum. She worked on the farm model with Nisha D’souza, who runs a conservation consultancy called EcoNiche. Together, they hope to create a new traceable seaweed supply chain for multiple industries, and ensure fair prices for farmers.
A culinary trail
India has one of the most diverse food cultures in the world, and is the fifth largest consumer of fish and seafood. We even have pockets of hyperlocal food microcultures that use local flora and fauna in fascinating dishes. But not seaweed.
The dearth of extensive seaweed farming in India does lend credence to the fact that it isn’t seen as a food. Another indication is that words for seaweed in various Indian languages are pretty much direct translations. Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu use the word paayal or paachi, which mean weed or moss. Not the most appetising way to get those salivary glands worked up. It also doesn’t get a mention alongside seafood in Indian Food: A Historical Companion by KT Achaya, a compendium on Indian food and its journey all the way from the Palaeolithic era.
Despite this, we did uncover some use. Conservationists who work with coastal communities have noticed the consumption of seaweed. Gabriella mentioned that in parts of the Kerala coast, seaweed is added to a soup-like meal while it is used as a leafy vegetable in parts of Tamil Nadu. In these parts, a porridge made from the species Gracilaria and Acanthophora are consumed. In Kadmat and Minicoy islands in Lakshadweep, seaweed is consumed in both pickled and fried formats.
In Tamil Nadu, a halwa is made by extracting the gel-like substance agar, widely used in the food industry as a thickening and stabilising agent in chocolate, ice cream, and jellies. Agar is added to a milkshake-like summer drink called jigarthanda from Madurai (in place of gelatin) to give it its thick consistency, along with sabja seeds, sarsaparilla or rose syrup, milk, and ice cream.
A website called indiantamilrecipes.com had a recipe for seaweed payasam. It’s pretty telling that at the end of the recipe, the author decided to add in a rather helpful note on what to use as a replacement for seaweed.
A research paper I came across experimenting with seaweed in recipes had created a halwa (whose hero ingredient was the brown seaweed species Sargassum wightii), pakoda (green seaweed Ulva reticulata), and a pickle (Eucheuma or Kappaphycus alvarezii, a red seaweed).
Seaweed is incredibly nutritious and contains pretty much all the basic nutrients of a balanced diet. It is considered to be a rich source of Vitamin B12, one of the very few non-animal sources of the vitamin, which most vegetarians and vegans tend to be deficient in.
There is a lot of research on seaweed driven by organisations like the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology and CMFRI, which could help promote consumption, particularly in light of the very real problems of nutritional deficiencies among the Indian population.
One way to take advantage of the nutrition that seaweed has to offer is to make salts that can be used in place of standard table salt. According to Gabriella, “What we should really be doing is putting it into midday meals, because all of your nutrition is in there. Just a little sprinkle of it in some dal and you won’t even get the taste, but it will be so good for the kids.” This would be a low-cost product, but it is still some time away.
She adds, “There needs to be a way of subsidising or making sure that the farmers are still paid really well. This will ensure that the seaweed is not overharvested, and that it doesn’t lose its market value.” In Gabriella’s view, the markets that are most receptive right now are restaurants. For instance, The Burger Factory in Goa made some seaweed powders with stock supplied by Gabriella’s team and incorporated these into the burgers, which were received positively. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit and threw a spanner in this experiment.
Another way to introduce local seaweed to the Indian palate is by using it as a replacement in Japanese cuisine, says Gabriella. Sargassam swartzii is the most accessible in India, and easiest to harvest. It has a taste profile similar to kombu, and can be replaced while making kombu-style broths. It can also be used in place of kelp and hijiki, which in Japan is used in salads and soup. Sargassum has its own unique flavours that also need to be explored.
“One of the chefs that I work with made a seaweed rasam out of it because it has this umami flavour, and it apparently went really well. Another chef who works at a Japanese restaurant used it to make a stock—similar to a dashi stock—since it goes really well with that and ramen. It can also be used as seasoning on eggs and toast, avocado on toast, even on a pizza,” she adds.
Ulva, which is a sea lettuce and is mainly found along the coast of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu in calmer, clearer waters, can be added to salads, soups, and any kind of broth. This species is also highly nutritious, but it’s seasonal and there’s too little of it to harvest sustainably.
Another species that could be used is Spatoglossum, which tastes like raw mango. Gabriella says it has a delicious, tart taste with an umami flavour to it. It’s also a beautiful looking seaweed that grows in deeper waters—making it hard to access—which is why a lot of people don’t know about it.
It is important to note that the lack of easily available information in the public domain isn’t necessarily proof that seaweed is not consumed in India. “It is more likely to mean that local communities that have a stronger oral tradition than written communication about their food will be the people eating it,” says Farah Yameen, who is based in the UK and works on food ethnographies and histories. She adds that this is especially true since people have historically consumed ingredients and foods that grow locally, and are easily accessible.
It’s clear there are communities that consume seaweed, but there is so little information on how this marine wonder plant is used as a food in our country. Digging up information on seaweed has been a fascinating journey, and we’re hoping that this will lead to more conversations around it, especially from the perspective of how it has been used in regional cuisine in the past.
Ranjana Sundareshan is a professional food and drink trend-tracker, and an amateur food history enthusiast. She is fascinated by all aspects of food, from its cultural and economic influences to its social and environmental impacts.