Sea Strawberries, Beach Plants & Seaweeds of Chile's Central Coast
Foraging for edibles along the shoreline.
Not having grown up near a coast, I was never really exposed to the edible things found growing along beaches and rocky shores. But what a world it is. Amidst windswept coastlines in the sandy soil, entire gardens of herbs and flowers exist, many of them with wonderfully crisp textures and briny flavors.
In recent years, perhaps by luck more than a sense of purpose, I keep finding myself in the proximity of these plants. In Peru, along the wild shores south of Lima, mountainous sand dunes are broken by seas of electric green salicornia tinged with red. On the beaches in Connecticut not far from where I recently moved in New York, I keep coming across shore plants like beach plums, saltwort (Salsola kali) and seaside plantain (Plantago maritima).
Then there is that entire summer in Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, a string of tiny islands off the South Coast of Iceland, while working on the book Slippurinn, about the restaurant of the same name, with Gisli Matthias Auðunsdóttir. There, gathering beach herbs and seaweeds is an almost daily activity, and the one of the reasons there is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to them and other herbs growing around the archipelago.
On beaches around Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar’s only inhabited island, we gathered beach peas, sea sandwort and beach mustard, not to mention seaweeds like dulse, wakame, sugar kelp and sea truffles that Icelanders have long been accustomed to harvesting. The favorite salty plant here, however, is the oyster leaf (Mertensia maritima), a thick, crunchy little bluish leaf found only in Iceland, Greenland, and parts of Canada that tastes exactly like an oyster.
Most recently I was in Chile, where the country was once again opening up after the lengthy quarantine had kept many away throughout the pandemic, and on the central coast sea strawberry season was in its dying days. Alongside Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó, I spent a few hours there looking for the last of the season and other rock plants, as I had done with him a few times before. While he has foragers throughout the country, he and his team head to the central coast (and mountains near Santiago) often to gather various herbs and algae themselves. [If interested in reading more, there’s great info and recipes about how they prepare these plants in the book Boragó: Coming from the South].
The idea of the below list of wild beach foods and others that will appear on this newsletter like it are not necessarily to suggest you fly to Chile (or Peru or Iceland or Connecticut for that matter) to collect beach plants there. Rather, it’s to have an idea of the varieties of edible plants from different ecosystems and understanding their uses and flavors. Apply the knowledge for wherever you might find yourself.
Sea Strawberries (Carpobrotus chilensis) [Center]: Not actually a strawberry, but a succulent, these are found growing from large patches of pointed green leaves all along Chile’s central coast. While it’s naturalized in Chile, it’s believed to be native to somewhere in southern Africa and is considered invasive along temperate parts of the Pacific Coast of North America, especially in California. The fruit is most commonly called a sea fig, though Rodolfo has always called them sea strawberries and I prefer how it sounds. The riper they are the sweeter they become and taste a bit like a cross between a strawberry and a fig. When overly ripe, you can squeeze them and it looks like marmalade is oozing out.
At Boragó, the only place I’ve ever seen them used, they have fermented in the past, but the best use, at least according to Rodolfo, is to use them fresh. Recently on the menu, he has served it as a pastel with rose kombucha, though when I was there the flesh and cured skins were served inside a cake that formed in the shape of a strawberry that was colored red with beets, garnished with sun rose (Aptenia cordifolia) leaves and honey seaweed oil.
Sea Lettuce (Ulva lactuca) [Top Left]: Found worldwide, sea lettuce is one of the most common types of seaweed. In Chile, it’s known as luche and is often seen in markets compressed into dense cakes with much of the moisture removed. You might find it mixed with similar species like Porphyra columbina or Ulva rigida. It’s an essential ingredient to lamb cazuela, though in southern Chile it might turn up in empanadas, sautéed with potatoes or used in salads.
When harvesting sea lettuce, it’s important to cut it off while leaving the part that is attached to the rocks, so it is able to grow back.
Beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus) [Top, 2nd from left]: The green pods of these beach plants look and taste like peas, while the flowers and shoots are pretty much the same as well. These have a wide distribution and can be found in many parts of the world.
Rock Clover (Oxalis carnosa) [Top, middle]: Native to Chile, but now found in many other parts of the world as an ornamental plant (you might see it called Bonsai sorrel). In Central Chile, the leaves can become quite thick, giving them crunchy texture.
Sea Stars [Top, 4th from left]: These small white flowers have an onion like, salty flavor though smell like honey.
Sea Carrots [Top right]: Not actually a separate species, but the air bladders of kelp. They have a crunchy texture and a hint of carrot flavor.
Sea Parsley (Apium prostratum) [Middle right]: Similar to parsley, but with a salty, bitter, citrusy flavor. Sometimes it’s called sea celery and it’s also found in Australia and New Zealand. Leaf shapes can vary considerably.
Cochayuyo (Durvillaea antarctica) [Bottom Left]: Also known as bull kelp and kolof. Long rubbery strands can be found washed up on the shore throughout Central and southern Chile. Its dehydrated form can be seen in markets throughout central and southern Chile and it’s used often in traditional cooking. It needs to be soaked in advance and then boiled with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar before adding it to a stew or sautéing it. It has a relatively mild flavor as far as seaweeds go. The thinner, dried strands are often turned into a crunchy snack.
The stem, the part that attaches to rocks and is known as huilte/ulte or lenfü in Chile, is more vegetal. It’s often chopped for salads and has a flavor and texture reminiscent of heart of palm. At Boragó, they sometimes make a broth from it that tastes a bit like a subtle soy sauce with an umami punch.
Salty Fingers (Disphyma crassifolium) [Bottom, 2nd from left]: Related to Salicornia, but thicker, saltier and juicier. They are great raw or very lightly cooked.
Beach onions [Bottom, 3rd from left]: Wild alliums with a mild onion flavor, with hints of salt and bitterness.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) [Bottom, 4th from left]: Common garden nasturtium, but on the beaches of Central Chile they grow uncommonly big leaves and flowers.
Salicornia (Sarcocornia neei) [Bottom right]: Samphire. Sea asparagus. Sea beans. Whatever you want to call them, they’re delicious, salty, crunchy beach plants that are abundant here. They’re mostly used as garnishes, but are a nice added texture to ceviches and stews.
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