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Cultivation of halophytes adds a sustainable flavour to UAE’s environmental drive

Cultivation of halophytes adds a sustainable flavour to UAE’s environmental drive
6 June 2024 00:10

SARA ALZAABI (ABU DHABI)

As part of its efforts to spearhead nature-based solutions in the era of climate change, Emirates Nature-WWF, a non-profit organisation and an environmental federal charity, is joining hands with the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) Casa Mikoko and sustainability champion, Omar Shihab, on a mission to enhance the cultivation of halophytes, or salt-tolerant plants, in the UAE, and thereby promote a culture of eco-responsible cuisine.


Halophytes, like Salicornia and Arthrocaulon, are climate-friendly plants that provide food, shelter, and carbon sinks along the UAE coastlines, said Marina Antonopoulou, Chief Conservation Officer at Emirates Nature-WWF, in an interview with Aletihad.


Through the "Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for Climate, Biodiversity & People” project in the UAE, funded by HSBC Bank Middle East, partners aims to study the feasibility of enhancing and cultivating halophytes to conserve salt marsh habitats and create new revenue streams for local farming communities. These involve pilot projects, nutritional analyses, market studies, and collaboration with chefs and farmers, she added. 


One of the goals of the NbS project in the UAE is to advance innovation and sustainability of local food production, ultimately contributing towards small-scale business growth, Antonopoulou said.


"Nutritional analysis conducted by our NbS project partner ICBA on Salicornia from the coastal areas of Umm Al Quwain reveals they have high levels of essential minerals and vitamin B12, as well as significant amounts of antioxidants. Salicornia also contains all nine essential amino acids, a rarity among plants, and serves as a good source of fibre," Antonopoulou said.


"The project calls on chefs, restaurants, and the public to start exploring this ingredient's potential in gastronomy and as a new and local nutritional source. Their buy-in and support for this sustainable ingredient could unlock unique possibilities, advancing our culinary culture," Antonopoulou continued.
Chefs are employing techniques like pickling, fermentation, dehydration, and salting to enhance the employment of Salicornia in various cuisines, she said. 


Recently, BOCA, a restaurant partnering with the project, created a menu featuring dishes like Salicornia & Seaweed Salad, Green Orzo & Salicornia Pesto, and Rainbow Trout. 


A tasting event was held in Umm Al Quwain in collaboration with Emirates Nature-WWF, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and sustainability champion Omar Shihab. The event witnessed the participation of over 20 Emirati chefs and food and beverage professionals. They also toured the local cultivation site of halophytes in the Umm Al Quwain Mangrove Reserve.


Antonopoulou said that the halophyte-tasting event in Umm Al Quwain provided a platform to highlight the importance of incorporating similar crops into menus and advocating for sustainable food practices.


"Chefs and food professionals found it inspiring to be part of an initiative to drive change in the market and consumer behaviours. They appreciated the collaborative atmosphere that brought together diverse stakeholders, including scientists, local government representatives, local communities, NGOs, and culinary experts to champion a climate-resilient crop in the UAE," Antonopoulou said.


Pertaining to the challenges associated with integrating halophytes into mainstream culinary practices, Antonopoulou noted that awareness holds the key.


“Some chefs in the UAE may not be familiar with halophytes. These ingredients can also be difficult to work with due to their high salt and fibrous nature. Additionally, native halophytes are not yet available to the public," she said.


However, “chefs and restaurants serve as artists, wielding the reframing power to promote sustainable ingredients. This empowers us to create unimaginable combinations and substantially impacts culture and tradition”, she added.

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