A three-Michelin-star chef in Spain has discovered that sea grass, a diminutive and little-loved marine plant, produces what is in effect, rice.
His adoption of this grain into cooking techniques is now simply one part of his mission to repair sea grass ecosystems around the world—which he says could serve to not only stop the warming of the planet, but feed it as well.
Ángel León is famous for his innovative seafood, and combining his love of the sea with his knowledge of its often unlooked-for bounty recently secured a third Michelin star for his restaurant Aponiente, and propelled him to gastronomic stardom in his country of Spain.
While the Bay of Cádiz where he lives always had waving green arms of sea grass (eelgrass to be specific) lining its shore, his rise to culinary greatness has counter-tracked a gradual decline in sea grass coverage, going along with a global decline in sea grass habitat that struggles to survive human activity and warming seas.
With his discovery, noted by the Guardian as only the second documented case of eating sea grass grains, León hopes it will lead to a complete revolution in how we look at our shorelines—that they might become “marine gardens.”
A superfood and superhero
GNN has reported on the amazing nature of sea grass both as an absorbent of carbon and a habitat maker, specifically that it can capture carbon 32x faster than a rainforest. The potential of adding a superfood grain to its portfolio screams out for restoration of sea grass meadows around the world.
And it is truly a superfood. Beginning in 2017, León started conducting tests on the small green grains of “sea rice” with the University of Cádiz—which he noticed emerging from the plant one day. They found it to be gluten-free and containing 50% more protein than normal rice, as well as containing rich amounts of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.
Their research led to a pilot study on the cultivation of eelgrass as a crop, through three separate plots totaling a little less than an acre of salt marsh.
It wasn’t until the plants bore their grains, 18 months later, that León realized he had not even tried them. Perhaps they would have a foul taste, he wondered nervously, according to the Guardian.
Nevertheless, like many unwanted parts of the sea and its creatures which León has successfully integrated into his cuisine, he subjected the green-yellow rice grains to a battery of different preparations.
“It’s interesting. When you eat it with the husk, similar to brown rice, it has a hint of the sea at the end,” said León. “But without the husk, you don’t taste the sea.”’
León hopes that the success of the rice as a potential foodstuff, the lack of pesticides and fertilizer used during its growth, as well as the fact that its nutritional quality makes up for a yield smaller than its terrestrial counterpart, will drive countries and organizations forward to cultivating it on a massive scale—regenerating ocean ecosystems, capturing humanity’s carbon, and filling our bellies.
“We have challenged ourselves to create the world’s first and only specialized R&D center for the cultivation of marine vegetation,” reads Aponiente’s presentation on their website.
“The goal is to continue researching this marine grain, as it may hold the key to mitigating the effects of climate change. We also aim to restore aquatic ecosystems, develop future marine crops that until now have been cultivated only on land, and work toward making the ‘ocean garden’ a reality.”