The Japanese have always had a pioneering approach to the possibilities of plundering the natural world for ingredients. Our friends Liz and Boyd returned from a trip to Japan in a state of high excitement. What was the best experience of the holiday? Eating pufferfish sperm at a speciality restaurant in Tokyo. What did it taste of? Not much, actually. But an unforgettable experience!
And that's just the sperm. The flesh of the fish (fugu) is considered to be a delicacy. The training for the preparation of fugu lasts a minimum of three years, as most of the fish is poisonous. Confusingly, the (poisonous) liver is considered the most delicious part of the fish. It's a major source of excitement to macho tourists like the chef Anthony Bourdain, who writes proudly of a visit to a fugu restaurant in his Duchess of Malfistyle restaurant memoir Kitchen Confidential.
Then there is whalemeat., mostly minke. The Buddhist argument in favour of eating whale is that given the necessity of taking the life of an animal the meat should feed as many people as possible eat whale not shrimp! The Japanese whaling industry has always maintained that their work is strictly for research purposes. Hmm. Although it should be said that the minke whale is not an endangered species. The stocks (sinister word) are diminishing but, for the moment at least, robust. The main cuts for eating are unesu (belly), onomi (tail meat), obake (fluke), saezuri (tongue). Whale meat, as one might expect from a mammal, apparently tastes more like meat than fish, similar to reindeer or venison, but is more tender. Sounds rather good.
And, of course, seaweed. The Japanese use several types of seaweed: nori, mainly for sushi, wakame for miso, konbu for dashi, hijiki for salads. Together, they account for about 10% of the Japanese diet.
I have been testing some recipes for my friend Jessi's forthcoming cookbook (watch this space). Like the Japanese, she wants to encourage us to deploy a more adventurous palate of ingredients, which for us means shopping outside supermarkets. Of course, if this excellent evangelism works, the supermarkets eventually catch up and start stocking more interesting stuff. Unlike the Japanese, Jessi avoids anything that's been harpooned.
One of the recipes I tested was for a frisky and complex version of clam chowder, containing not one but two types of seaweed, nori and dulse. Nori was not hard to find, but dulse was trickier. It's a seaweed that grows on the shores of the northern Atlantic, with a leathery texture, a beautiful purple colour and a smokey, salty flavour, heavy on the umami. You can fry it, and it tastes amazingly like bacon. (A gift for vegetarians and vegans with a lingering bacon nostalgia.) I couldn't find any in the shops, but then I realised that my wife Jo was at that very moment on the island of Skye, so I commissioned her to bring some back home.
Which she obligingly did. A great pile of assorted clammy stuff. Neither of us was at all sure what any of it was. The colour didn't look right, but more in hope than expectation (as the great cricket commentator John Arlott used to say), I laid it out on the garden bench to dry. The heavens opened and it rained continuously for the next three days. We had more or less returned the seaweed to its original habitat. Not very helpful for making clam chowder, though. Meanwhile, Jo, suspecting that her pile of stuff might not work, had also brought back a small packet of dried dulse flakes which had cost several million pounds from a tourist shop in Ullapool. The strapline on the packet was: Move Over Sea Salt. Which should have been a warning. Sure enough, two tablespoons of the flakes completely ruined the dish. The moral: know your dulse. The stuff in the garden eventually went onto the composting.
Is seaweed the future? It is stupendously healthy, high in vitamins and minerals, and usefully alkaline, where most foods are acidic. In fact it's officially a superfood, whatever that may be. It may also be part of the solution to global warming. The climate scientist Tim Flannery, who used to head up the Australian Climate Commission (before the Australian government became the pariahs of climate change) has suggested a radical geo-engineering project - giant seaweed farms. Seaweed grows at 30 to 60 times the rate of land-based plants, so it can draw out lots of CO2. If you cover 9% of the world's oceans in seaweed farms, you could draw down the equivalent of all our current emissions.and reverse the acidification of the oceans.and feed a population of 10 billion people.' Sorted.
Inevitably there's a lot of scepticism about this gloriously utopian idea, but, having finally dug out some decent dulse (which is delicious) and made a stonkingly good clam chowder, I'm all in favour.
Image: Dried dulse (Palmaria palmata) farmed in Horsens, Denmark. (Photography: Jonas Drotner Mouritsen.). In the Flavour Journal, published by BioMed Central.
Words by Orlando Gough