Fad or Future

Ice plant: the bubble-covered ingredient coming to a kitchen near you?

As a garnish or as part of a salad, the extraordinary-looking plant could be set for a stint centre stage.

14 August 2018
image credit: Yummifruit via Wikimedia Commons

Ice plant? Don’t you mean iceberg lettuce?

We don’t, actually – although the ice plant is sometimes called the ice lettuce, which can make things confusing!

Known as ficoïde glaciale in France, the ice plant is a flowering, leafy object that looks like it would be at home in a botanical garden.

Found in a number of different cuisines, it’s starting to pop up in a few kitchens across the country as Brits continue to develop a taste for the exotic.

Originating in Africa, Sinai and Southern Europe, it’s also now commonly found in the North and South America, as well as Australia and parts of the Mediterranean. The ice plant blooms with violet flowers in the shape of a daisy (which are also edible) and grows to be around 5cm tall.

So why is it called an ice plant?

That would be due to its look. The thing that makes the plants stand out is that they are absolutely covered in glistening, gel-like bubbles, giving a decidedly icy look.

The bubbles, which are hard to the touch, are filled with slightly salty water, making the ice plant rather more like seaweed than iceberg. Each plant has thousands of bubbles – which are more scientifically called bladder cells or water vesicles.

So it tastes salty?

The fleshy, thick leaves are the most commonly used in cooking and they have a rather lemony bite, crunchy and juicy due to the bubbles. They’re either used raw as a garnish or in a salad, or in stir-fries and the like. They can also been used in tea.

Right, so it’s good for you? Even though it’s covered in saltwater bubbles?

You don’t have to have much salt to make something salty. In fact, as it’s largely made of water, it’s very low in calories. The ice plant is also high in vitamins A, B and C, mineral salts as well as isoflavones, which are only found in plants and have natural health benefits, especially towards the heart and bones.

The leaves of the ice plant are also slightly antiseptic and are used in traditional medicines in some cultures.

Okay, I’ll  give it a try. What can I do with it?

Due to the briny/lemony tones, ice plant goes well with fish. Ollie Dabbous uses ice plant in his scallop dish at his new restaurant, Hide, in Mayfair. The scallops are roasted and plated with sea lettuce – a type of seaweed – salty fingers, dill, oyster leaves, ice plant and cucumber, all in a soft caviar butter sauce.

The ice plant is part of a larger family of similar plants known as the Aizoaceae. A member of this family pops up in Japanese cuisine and is used to make tempura as well as in a variety of stir-fries.

New Zealanders use their version of the ice plant, known as New Zealand spinach, in upscale salads.

Let's get cooking! Wait, where do I get my hands on the stuff?

The ice plant hasn’t hit mainstream supermarkets quite yet, but you might have some luck in more traditional vegetable markets. There are also online artisan stores, such as Fine Foods Specialist, which stocks ice plant as a micro herb.

The gardeners among you will be excited find that ice plant seeds are readily available and the plant itself is a tough cookie, flourishing in a number of different habitats.

What if I’m not a gardener?

Not to worry, the seeds are also edible!

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