- The two most popular types of microalgae are spirulina – a small blue-green plant found in freshwater lakes and named after its spiral shape – and vivid green chlorella
- Chlorella contains protein, vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, iron, magnesium and zinc
- Spirulina is similarly nutritious, and as a powder can be used as a natural thickening agent in place of others like Ultra-Tex or agar
For years, microalgae has been the preserve of health obsessives, with the rest of us turning our noses up as they liberally sprinkle spirulina or chlorella powder on their smoothies in the hope of super-boosting their vitamin and mineral intake.
However, these little green plants have started to pique the interest of the culinary world, with chefs beginning to see the benefits of adding algae, in its different forms, to other ingredients.
Harvested and quickly dried, the plants are turned into a powder that lends a “seaweedy, nori, kombu-type flavour to ingredients,” according to Dave Pigram, executive chef at contract caterer Harbour & Jones, where he has been experimenting with spirulina.
A versatile ingredient, Pigram has added spirulina to a sesame rice cracker that he serves with a raw-fish salad, as well as more robust meat and seafood dishes. This adds both colour and seasoning to the ingredients, he says.
Algae oil – extracted from the plant – is the preferred choice for private dining chef Chris Bower, who heralds its high burning temperature and mild taste, as well as its health benefits.
“I believe algae oil is likely to be a popular alternative to olive, rapeseed and coconut oil,” he claims. “It's just a matter of time before it becomes more widely known and available.”
Dave Pigram, executive head chef at Harbour & Jones, uses spirulina powder in his lamb cannon and carbon braised shoulder of lamb doughnut with spirulina landcress purée. “Spirulina works well as a seasoning and also as a way to add colour. I use it in this lamb dish by adding it to a landcress – a British version of a watercress – purée. I take the landcress and blanch it off in boiling water, then season it with spirulina powder as we blend it into a purée. The spirulina seasons it – it gives it a slight seaweed flavour – but it also thickens it and helps bring out the bright green colour. I serve it with sprouted broccoli, a piece of poached cannon of lamb and the braised shoulder inside a carbon doughnut. Spirulina has this intense flavour and it just works really well with the lamb.”
Chris Bower, private dining chef at Olive & Thyme Events, uses algae oil in his Cornish crab cocktail with avocado puree, kohlrabi and black radish salad and toasted peanut dressing. “I make an algae oil emulsion to bind the crab, soft herbs, baby gem, lemon and cayenne pepper together. It works like a mayonnaise. To make the avocado puree, I add lemon juice to avocado and blitz together, adding algae oil until silky smooth. I also dress thinly sliced kohlrabi and black radish with a little of the algae oil. Algae oil is a subtle oil with a mild flavour that allows other flavours to come through, keeping the crab the star of the show. It also brings omega-3 and DHA to a dish that’s already high in calcium, potassium, vitamins C and A. This dish is pretty much a superfood.”
Cristiano Vitelli, owner and co-founder of vegan pizzeria Pickywops, gives customers the option of adding spirulina to their pizza bases at his outlets in Fulham and Peckham. “We use wholemeal or type 2 flour to make our pizza dough, and, if customers want it, we add spirulina powder into the dough. The taste isn't too strong, but you know it is there. It creates this bright, light green colour. Customers can choose any topping, but we find it goes very well with our Vegan Temptations topping: coconut oil, mozzarella, kale, broccolini, almond ricotta and blueberry.”