Science - November 29, 2007

Saline cuisine: the taste of the future?

It’s just after six on Monday evening, 26 November, and Zeezicht organic vegetarian restaurant is already full to bursting. An evening on saline farming, featuring a three-course meal based on products from seawater agriculture, has attracted lots of Dutch and international students. ‘We’ve had to disappoint quite a few people and we’re actually overbooked tonight,’ says Seline Meijer, one of the organisers from student club RUW.

Starter, main course and dessert all containing saline products, served at Restaurant Zeezicht last Monday.
The starter is not totally unfamiliar: sushi, a traditional Japanese dish. Normally the saline ingredients would be seaweed and fish, but vegetables have been used instead of fish. Niels the chef explains that it’s not that difficult to make sushi, and it’s fun because you can try all sorts of different fillings. Judging by the satisfied sounds, the starter is much appreciated by the hungry students. And although there’s no fish in it, the smell of sea salt is a passing reference to fish.

Between courses, Willem Brandenburg a researcher at Plant Research International and Imares explains how sustainable saline agriculture can be based on classical agriculture while taking into account the sensitivity of saline ecosystems. A ‘saline farm’ can vary from a simple ‘field’ where seaweeds are grown to extended fish farms. Every organism has its own unique function: shellfish can act as biological water filters for example. And saline farms can have multiple functions, varying from basic food production to acting as wave breakers to prevent floods caused by waves.

‘Time for the main course,’ Niels announces as he dishes up salicornia, a salt tolerant plant found in coastal zones like mangroves, beaches and salt marshes. The salicornia is steamed and its taste is reminiscent of young spinach stems or asparagus. To the disappointment of some students, the salicornia is accompanied by stamppot, a typical Dutch dish consisting of potatoes mashed together with leafy green vegetables. To keep the saline character it’s been seasoned with herbs from the French coast. This makes the stamppot bearable and conjures up the idea of fish soup and a walk along the boulevard. ‘If you added some chilli, garlic and onions it would taste way better,’ a Mexican student comments.

Some of the students think there is a future for this kind of farming. One is Hermes Arriaga Sierra, a Mexican doing an MSc in Environmental Sciences: ‘The main question is whether people around the world are ready for this kind of food. As long there is no feasible market saline farmers won’t be able to make a living out of this kind of farming. In Mexico for example, food is embedded in traditional preferences of people. Saline crops like seaweed will not be accepted easily. Maybe, if they can be produced cheaper than traditional food, people will be tempted to try them.’ Brandenburg believes there is a market: ‘Demand for seaweed is increasing by ten percent every year. Although saline culture is not yet feasible for every market, I think it will become a necessity in the future, especially when it comes to global food security and biofuels.’

Other students remain sceptical, especially about the potential impact on vulnerable marine ecosystems. Nevertheless, Brandenburg is convinced that this is the way of the future. ‘A few projects are already running, for example in Zeeland in the south of the Netherlands, where sustainability and minimising the environmental impact are high priorities. At the same time it has to be profitable and generally accepted by society.’

Dinner ends with a cranberry jelly cake dessert. The jelly is made from agar, which comes from seaweed, and it is flavoured with cranberries, a fruit which grows in wetland areas. Some of the students like it, especially as it’s low in calories. It’s a bit like eating a cranberry flavoured popsicle. Others dislike the texture of the jelly cake. Whether saline agriculture will be a success remains to be seen, but tonight’s food has been quite acceptable. It’s not your everyday food but the variety and the taste of something new is great.

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