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FOOD & TRAVEL

Later, lobster: It’s Seaweed Week in Portland

Norimoto Bakery's focaccia-shaped shokupan made with seaweed for Seaweed Week.

Move over, lobster. For the next week, local seaweed is taking over the culinary spotlight in Maine.

As part of Seaweed Week, happening through May 1, more than 80 chefs and food artisans in the Portland area and along the coast are creating dishes, drinks, and desserts that highlight the nutritious and sustainable algae. Think dulse bon bons, seaweed burger buns, and sugar kelp vodka cocktails.

The event, now in its fourth year, is organized by Josh Rogers, owner of Portland specialty shop Heritage Seaweed. At the store, he sells his own line of seaweed teas, as well as various other ocean-themed goods.

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When Rogers opened his store in 2018, he noticed that customers were intrigued by “sea vegetables” but often didn’t know how to eat or cook them.

“It’s kind of an interesting problem to have because you’re excited about this ingredient, but you’re not really fully engaging with it yet,” Rogers said.

That led him to the idea for Seaweed Week: Ask chefs and other food professionals to showcase the culinary possibilities of local algae. He describes the event as a type of restaurant week. Participants are asked to feature at least one dish made with Maine seaweed.

“Chefs are doing all sorts of great things with it, from salads to pizza to really fancy small plates,” Rogers said.

In addition, five brewers, including Oxbow Brewing Company and Mast Landing Brewing Company, have created seaweed beers for the event.

“I think Maine is the kelp beer capital of the world at the moment,” Rogers said.

While the event’s artisan-made food and beverages provide a compelling reason to consume seaweed, its benefits go beyond taste. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, including iodine, iron, calcium and vitamin A. Plus, it requires no land, fresh water or fertilizers to grow, and it sequesters carbon from the ocean.

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Seaweed Week coincides with harvest time for cultivated sugar kelp, a large, brown form of seaweed that grows well in cold New England waters. The event also celebrates wild seaweeds, including dulse, kombu, and wakame, which have been gathered for thousands of years along Maine’s coast.

In the last decade, seaweed aquaculture has become a burgeoning industry in the state with dozens of growers, including lobstermen and oyster farmers, planting lines of kelp in November for harvest in late April as a way to diversify their incomes and provide a locally grown option. Most of the kelp currently sold in the United States is imported from overseas, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Billy Hager, executive chef and manager of Helm Oyster Bar and Bistro, in Portland, first started using Maine sugar kelp at his restaurant after he was introduced to it by an oyster farmer.

“For us, it’s really about the connection to local farmers — they’re interested in it, so we’re interested in it,” Hager said. “There’s definitely a buzz around it.”

From a culinary perspective, umami-rich kelp is a “great flavor builder,” he said. As part of Seaweed Week, Hager is serving three creations: a lobster and dried kelp potato doughnut; the salt cod dish brandade on sourdough toast topped with fresh sugar kelp; and a cocktail made with kelp-infused vodka.

Atsuko Fujimoto, owner of Portland’s Norimoto Bakery, is offering Maine kombu “shokaccia” — the Japanese-style soft loaf bread shokupan, but it is baked flat like focaccia. It incorporates a fresh seaweed puree made by Biddeford-based kelp distributor Atlantic Sea Farms.

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Fujimoto, who grew up in Japan, has cooked with seaweed for years, but had never used anything like the puree before incorporating it into her bread, she said. She describes the texture as similar to the savory yeast spread Marmite and the flavor as “a little sweet, a little salty and oceanic.”

Seaweed Week also includes various events, including an open-to-the-public kelp farmer social at Maine Craft Distilling, in Portland, on April 28 and kelp aquaculture talk by Atlantic Sea Farms CEO Briana Warner at Canopy Farms, in Brunswick, on May 1.

Those who want to try cooking with fresh kelp at home can purchase it directly from farmers at various pick-up points, which are listed on the Seaweed Week website.

This is the fourth year of the event, but only the second full version. Rogers had to scale back the 2020 and 2021 incarnations because of the pandemic.

“Basically, we’re now back to where we started, which feels like a victory,” Rogers said.

For more information, including a full list of participants and events, go to seaweedweek.org.