There’s a wild secret to ramping up the flavours of your cooking - and creating a meal where you can savour each bite with an added appreciation for where your food comes from.
According to chef Alastair McLeod, unlocking the mystery of sustainable eating is raw and uncomplicated: source native ingredients from the wild, such as sea herbs grown in and around the ocean, and notice how your food behaviours change.
Sea herbs include a range of leafy greens and edible succulents that grow along Australia's coastline; along with sea "vegetables" such as seaweed, they're an exciting group of ingredients that are quietly gathering fans and becoming more available even for those who don't live near the sea.
A lot of sea herbs aren’t ingredients that you can grow at home, as they enjoy being left in their wild environment, says McLeod: a Northern Ireland-born chef with Sri Lankan, European, Filipino and Torres Strait Islander heritage. “However, you might go out and source them from nature’s supermarket in and around the sea.
“There’s something really primal about that. [In using them], you’ll most likely develop a greater empathy for their food because if you go foraging for herbs, then you’ll say: ‘I am going to use every last bit of this ingredient because I sourced it with my own hands’.”
The multicultural chef, who has recently reconnected with his Torres Strait Islander roots, says he’s passionate about native ingredients.
He’s also a huge fan of all things from and near the sea, having just published an ebook on fish and seafood. He explains that the powerful flavours of Australia’s most popular sea herbs can amp up a home cook’s food experiences.
“Some of these herbs that grow wild near the sea have the extraordinary punctuation. Using them as ingredients: it makes the total of your meal more than the sum of its parts.”
Take ‘beach mustard’ plants, mustard greens that grow near the sea, for example.
“It’s hot and when you taste it, it’s like you are eating hot English mustard off the tip of a teaspoon.
“The applications for that serving with either white or red meat – to be able to give a heat of mustard with just a garnish in such a way that is fusing a wild forest ingredient with traditional proteins – makes a dish really transcend. Now that’s elevating food.”
But where do we get it?
Count yourself lucky if you have access to sea vegetables at your doorstep, like chef Andrew McConnell (from Cumulus Inc., Cutler & Co. and Supernormal), who lives on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula and forages for them along the coastline. He likes to keep things simple and let the sea vegetables shine, like pairing sea parsley with grilled calamari (you can catch him on the all-new series Food Safari Water, starting Wednesday, August 1 at 8pm on SBS - he appears in episode 6, airing September 5).
Of course, the reality is not everyone in modern Australia lives next door to the sea; nor do we all have the physical ability to enjoy climbing over rocks to harvest seaweed or possess the time required for an afternoon of foraging. And then there’s the issue of the law: there are strict regulations in place governing the number of herbs you can take from protected lands in and around the ocean and from the sea itself. (These may vary from state to state or even beach to beach).
Luckily, there’s an emerging alternative market that still enables you to ‘hunt’ for rare sea herbs and vegetables – fresh or dried – from online suppliers or at select independent grocery stores.
Taste Australia Bush Food Shop is one such company, offering home cooks online access to more than 40 different dried native herbs, from both the sea and the land, including Warrigal greens, sea parsley and river mint.
“We source ingredients for people who can’t source these ingredients for themselves [in Australia], because of where they live or because their surrounding environment and climate isn’t conducive to growing these herbs,” says Taste Australia Bush Food Shop co-owner, Malynka Williams.
She tells SBS that the use of native sea herbs is increasing in popularity although it’s still quite foreign to traditional home cooking Down Under. “Sea herbs have become very trendy,” says the Queensland-based native ingredients specialist whose business has grown exponentially over the last few years. And herein lies the power of using exotic sea herbs in a dish.
Williams tells SBS that dried sea parsley (or sea celery) is by far a shopper’s favourite and the most seasonally consistent sea ingredient, hailing from various producers situated along our southern coastline. It’s a slightly darker and shiner herb than Italian parsley and is often commercially grown in composted seaweed and sand.
“Sea celery or parsley is pretty much the same as regular parsley but it has a salty element to it. I use it in quiches.”
Also bearing a saltwater taste is the native succulent, samphire (known as sea asparagus, swamp grass and sea beans), found along the southern coastline of Australia.
Outside her day job, Williams explains, she often collects and eats samphire shoots fresh when she’s got time and the plant is in season (from October to March).
Shoots can be used raw in salads because it has “a little crunch”. Or they can be blanched, sautéed and used to make pesto. “Samphire is also commonly used as a gin stabiliser by producers, right down the southern coastline,” she adds.
Samphire can be used as a vegetable in dishes, somewhat like asparagus.
“Just don’t be afraid of these ingredients. Step in with a light hand [in case they are quite strong] and then increase the amount you use in your meals until you get the taste you like. But just get in and experiment.”
Fresh sea greens
Outback Pride Fresh supplies fresh sea ingredients to chefs, markets, independent supermarkets and boutique grocers around the country. The Northern Territory company also has a long history of working with Indigenous communities to source ingredients and to create sustainable employment opportunities. It also currently runs The Outback Pride Project, an initiative that promotes an Australian native food industry, operating across a network of production sites within Indigenous communities.
As such, company co-owner and horticulturalist Mike Quarmby, tells SBS the traditionally land-based company has added moved further into sea herb production of late via its Reedy Creek Nursery in South Australia. Utilising the underwater ground supply, Quarmby explains that the company provides an increasingly steady quantity of sea herbs like sea celery, karkalla, samphire, sea parsley and Warrigal greens.
The taste of these native sea herbs, Quarmby says, is incredibly powerful.
“Sea celery is like having parsley on steroids,” he says. “You use it like ‘normal’ parsley but it has a peppery edge and a stronger coriander flavour to it. You chop it and put it in soups or have it with seafood.”
The company also stocks karkalla – a round-leaf succulent fleshy herb grown in damp and saline conditions close to the surf. Quarmby advises home cooks to swap standard baby spinach leaves for karkalla leaves or Warrigal greens, also grown along waterways in the sand near beaches. Use either sea vegetable in your stir-fry of choice to give it a slightly saltier taste and a distinct point of native difference.
Seablite – a coastal plant related to samphire that grows in salt mudflats and saline estuaries – is also a top sea herb recommendation. “Seablite is sometimes called sea fern and is grown on the seashore,” says Quarmby. “You can eat it or use it to decorate your plate.
“Basically, all of these herbs and vegetables lend themselves to seafood and Asian dishes and stir-fries. They typically require minimum cooking.”
Seaweed on your plate
Tasmanian-based company Tas Kelp provides dried organic bull kelp to consumers online for a variety of purposes. One of them, says business co-owner Kelli Lane, is for cooking.
“It’s a misunderstood but safe product if you use it correctly,” says Lane. “Kelp has a slight ocean smell but it’s really good for you as it’s full of amino acids, iodine and other nutrients that are good for your health.
“I actually mix dried kelp with Himalayan rock salt – half salt and half kelp – and grind it. I then use it to season foods as I would salt or pepper. You can also put it in soups, stews, salads and smoothies [as a flavour enhancer]. Or you can use sheets of kelp as vegetarian, gluten-free lasagna sheets.”
Lane contends that there’s not much difference between the kelp she uses and the seaweed that might wash up on the shores of your local beach.
But, she warns: “if people have access to the beach then they can only source a certain amount [legally] if it’s washed up on the beach. They also can’t cut it from the rocks”. [Limits vary; check the rules in your state.]
“You should also be aware that you usually have to then soften the kelp before using it, simmering until soft for around two-to-three hours.”
The time and effort put into preparing kelp is worth it, Lane says. Of course, McLeod, being a big believer in sea ingredients, agrees.
“There’s no doubt there’s a symptomatic disconnect between the food we eat and our knowledge of where the ingredients used to cook a meal comes from,” he says.
“I believe using ingredients like sea herbs can change the way you conduct yourself in broader terms, in the kitchen and influence what other things you put in your shopping trolley at the supermarket,” he says.
“In that sense, I’d hope this is not a food trend because the notion of a trend is that it goes in and out of fashion. What sea herbs should do, however is add another layer to the rich food story in Australia.”
“I never thought I would find such amazing produce on the Island of Bute in Scotland. Putting on my waders and getting in the water to hand-harvest my own seaweed was an awesome experience. There are literally hundreds of species of seaweed in these waters, each with its own unique flavour and texture. I decided to combine some of the seaweed with the other island local specialty - beef. You may not be able to source the same varieties of seaweed that I did on Bute, so use whatever fresh and dried seaweed you can find. Japanese grocers and fish markets are a good place to start.” Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's United Kingdom