Irish moss is a bushy seaweed that saved thousands of starving Irish during the potato famine of the mid 19th century. Today it is used as a thickener, filler, stretcher and as emulsifier in many cosmetics.
Irish moss, Chondrus crispus, is a curly red, purple, or yellow green plant found clinging to submerged rocks, and is most plentiful in southeastern Ireland. But it also grows along the shorelines of Canada, New England, the British Isles and Europe.
The bushy seaweed saved thousands of Irish from starvation during the potato famine of the mid-19th century. However, many generations of hungry poor folk in their own country, and other countries that border the North Atlantic Ocean have utilized this humble seaweed during hard times.
When not eating Irish moss, people have also used it as a laxative and a home remedy for sore throats and chapped skin. Today, it is also commonly used as a filler and stretcher of other foods.
When Irish immigrants arrived in America and Canada, and found Irish moss growing on the rugged shores, they began to gather and use it in America. Soon the word got out about it, and Irish moss began to be harvested for commercial ventures.
Now, Irish moss is harvested by men in boats throughout the summer. They use rakes to gather the 2 foot-long-stem among the submerged rocks where they grow. But hand gathered Irish moss is preferred because its purer and not mixed with other seaweeds.
After harvesting it, the workers rinse the curly moss and let it dry in the sun for up to two weeks. While drying, Irish moss is bleached to a grayish or yellowish white by the sun. After this, the dry seaweed is soaked in fresh cold water until it swells back to its original size. Then it is boiled until it dissolves. As the liquid cools, it turns to a jelly, and it is this jelly that is used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
It may be eaten as is, in its jelly stage, or it may be used to thicken soups and stews. When boiled with milk and sugar, it makes a delicious white pudding with a high mucilage content, especially soothing for people with sore throats.
Commercially, Irish moss is also used as a stabilizing agent and thickener in chocolate milk, ice cream, baked goods, and many other food items.
Irish moss is often incorporated as an emulsifier into cosmetics and skin lotions because it is a most soothing emollient.
The humble seaweed, Irish moss, is a most useful plant.