From Spore to Salad

“If you took nori away from us, we would just be floundering,” says Mike Wiley, chef and co-owner at Eventide Oyster Bar in downtown Portland, Maine. He smiles, a half-quirk that lifts one side of his face, before barreling on. “Nori is a huge part of what we do—especially our nori vinaigrette. We serve dash constantly in one form or another. Seaweed makes its way into many of our broths. We also use seaweed sheets almost like a hot dog casing to hold together various parts of fish—we poach it and it tightens up as it cooks and hydrates. We joke a lot about taking really nice local meat and vegetables and making it taste like gas station food. But we do that because we want that acidity, and a ton of salt and fat and richness.”

Wiley’s desire to junk-icy fine ingredients makes perfect sense to me. The body craves certain tastes, textures and flavors. Some scientists believe we’re hard-wired specifically to enjoy the tangy umami flavor found in MSG and many proteins. I pose this idea to Wiley, and he agrees.

“It’s delicious, it’s natural,” he says. “That flavor is in so many of the things we love—all the things that are really crave-able and savory have MSG: beef jerky, parmesan cheese, salami.” And, he adds, if you study the structure of certain vegetables, like tomato seeds and shiitake mushrooms, “You’ll find a ton of MSG in there, too.”

Not only will you find MSG in seaweed, but the edible waterweed also played a key role in the discovery and isolation of the chemical compound. In 1908 Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda decide to embark on a quest to figure out what made his wife’s dash (a ubiquitous soup base made from kelp) so delectable. He knew the flavor he tasted was “common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but … not one of the four well-known tastes,” as he wrote at the time. He was the first to label the elusive flavor umami—which has been translated from Japanese as “deliciousness,” “yummy” or “a pleasant savory taste”—and headed into the lab to begin looking for the underlying structure of this piquant sensation.

Within a year, he had isolated the compound and created a crystalline form of MSG that gave a kick of umami flavor to other foods. He called his creation “Ajinomoto,” which means “the essence of taste.” (Scientists call the compound L-glutamate, a more accurate, albeit less romantic, name.)

But even though kelp and its ilk have contributed so much to our modern food culture, we don’t often pause to consider the seaweed.

“It’s pretty strange,” Wiley muses, “that seaweed remains a tough nut to crack.” It is flavorful and nutritious, and when prepared right, it can transform a dish, bringing a unique vegetable flavor and vivid salinity to the plate. But seaweed suffers from the same fate as many organic foodstuffs. Wiley says, “The problem is, people don’t want to pay a lot of it, but a lot of labor goes into it.”