What Are Sea Beans And How Do You Eat Them?

Sea beans, also known as samphire, glasswort, pickleweed, or sea asparagus, depending on where you are in the world, belong to the genus Salicornia (per Hakai Magazine). With the highest salinity tolerance of any plant, according to Atlas Obscura, sea beans are considered halophytes that flourish across saltwater beaches and coastal marshlands. Sea beans are technically flowering succulents (via The Ocean Portal), and their branch-like stalks resemble thick grass that, when eaten, provide a satisfying, salty bite.

In nature, sea beans grow from spring to midsummer. Halophytes like sea beans have been a dietary staple in cultures around the globe — but, up until recently, they were only attainable if foraged from the wild. Now, sea beans are the catalyst for a sustainable farming method known as "saltwater agriculture." Requiring no fresh water (a resource that is only becoming increasingly scarce), many scientists believe sea beans and other blue foods have the potential to be a key component in feeding a growing global population in the face of climate change (via United Nations).

How are they made?

Of all the water on planet Earth, only 2% is fresh — half of which is frozen inside glaciers. According to The World Bank, the 1% that is accessible continues to be used irrationally, with more than 70% of it used for agriculture alone. The global population is estimated to reach 9 billion people by the year 2050, requiring agricultural production to increase by 50%. In turn, this increases freshwater withdrawals by 15% — which The Guardian reports could threaten over half of the world's population, sending them into a state of increased water shortages.

That's why saltwater agriculture is so integral. Sea beans, uniquely, are the first crop being farmed this way hydroponically, thanks to an environmental scientist named Sam Norton. Every week, local fishing crews bring 380 liters of salt water to Heron Farms, making them available all year round, per Hakai Magazine. The beans are sold to local restaurants and consumers, and the profits are used to replant sea beans in the marshes (via Eating Well).

By replanting the sea beans in the wild, the plant absorbs the excess salt in the marshes caused by dredging, and thus restores the habitat by allowing it to support the many different species that call it home. According to Atlas Obscura, there's also the potential to utilize halophytes in animal feed to reduce, and even eliminate, the amount of freshwater used for animal agriculture — which, as in the case of beef production, can be surprising

Nutritional information

Being halophytes, sea beans don't just absorb salt from the ocean but also valuable ocean minerals. As the best source of minerals on the planet, the ocean is responsible for much of sea beans' nutrition profile — providing them with high levels of iron, potassium, magnesium, and more (via Water Encyclopedia). In fact, Heron Farms claims that a serving of sea beans provides more iron than kale, more magnesium than avocados, more fiber than bananas, and even serves as a source of vegan Omega 3.

However, what's most surprising about sea beans is that despite their sodium content and salty flavor, consuming them will not dramatically alter your blood pressure (via WebMD). This is due to something known as trans ferulic acid, a type of phytochemical that is also found in sea beans. Trans ferulic acid is an antioxidant that, per a 2007 study published in the National Library of Medicine, is found to be anti-aging, have a positive effect against hypertension, and even reverse the damaging effects of nicotine, making sea beans a healthy alternative to salt.

Cooking with sea beans

The Ocean Portal compares sea beans to the likes of green beans and fresh asparagus. In halophyte nature, sea beans are salty, with a nice refreshing crunch and snap. Atlas Obscura claims that their satisfying bite comes with a surprising burst of flavor that's, once again, most likely due to their salt absorbency. However, whether they're raw, boiled, roasted, steamed, sautéed, or blanched, that saltiness can be subdued depending on how you serve them — and there are many different ways that's done.

Around the world, sea beans are prepared differently. In Turkey, for instance, they're commonly blanched in olive oil and garlic (per Hakai Magazine). In Korea, however, they are typically dried, ground, and blended with sea salt and used as a seasoning — in South Korea Atlas Obscura found that they're stir-fried in a dish with glass noodles. On the other hand, in Italy, you can find sea beans in pasta or served fresh with lemon, olive oil, and burrata. In France, they may be used like any other ingredient in an omelet. From sea bean coleslaw to tacos, Heron Farms shares a number of recipes you can use for inspiration.

Where to buy them

If you're feeling adventurous, you could venture out into the marshlands and try foraging sea beans for yourself. However, there are other ways to get your hands on them. West World writes that sea beans can often be found at the farmer's market, even in non-coastal areas. However, the catch is that they're only available for a short time out of the year— usually for a few weeks around early May. But that's what's so great about saltwater agriculture. Not only does it benefit the planet, but it also makes sea beans available all year round (via Hakai Magazine).

Heron Farms sells sea beans in packs similar to how you'd find your herbs at the grocery store. For $19.99, you can have an 8 oz pack sent right to your door. They also offer a subscription service, so you'll never have to run low on your newest obsession.