The scientific name is Caulerpa lentillifera. In the Philippines, it is called lato (ar-arosep in the Ilocos region), it is umi-budo in Japan and, in the English-speaking world, it is known as sea grapes or green caviar.
Lato is one of the many species of seaweeds harvested (and, in some cases, cultivated) for food. It tastes briny; the texture is slimy. According to the Department of Science and Technology website, it is “a good source of iron, iodine, calcium, and vitamins A and C.”
A French blogger who wanted to experience lato harvest went diving in Palawan.
The lato field, honestly, you’ll never guess it’s here. The only thing you can see from the surface is the sea, with mangroves on each side. The women stay on the boats, and the men dive, holding their breath. They harvest armfuls of lato that they put in nets tied to the sides of the boats…
5 meters down, I can feel the seaweed, but not being able to see anything is kind of making me anxious. I imagine that a hand is going to grab me and take me deeper. A hand, or a horrible creature. So I don’t stay very long, but I understand that the Tagbanua harvest the lato without even seeing it. It’s hard for them not to harvest the same spot twice. But at the same time, lato is so abundant that it’s not really a problem.
When I go out of the water, I’m covered in a slimy gel from head to toes…
The simplest way to enjoy lato is to eat it as it is — raw. Rinse well to remove any trace of sand and drain. Serve with a dipping sauce and enjoy. Kalamansi juice spiked with minced bird’s eye chilis is especially good although, in some regions, a mixture of vinegar and fish sauce is preferred. In the mouth, lato explodes with juices as the tiny grape-like structures release the salty water within.
Another way to serve lato is as a salad. Rinse the lato and discard the larger stems. Toss with chopped shallots and tomatoes, and serve with your preferred dressing.
Whichever way you want to enjoy lato, remember that the dipping sauce or dressing should be served on the side and not mixed with the seaweed because lato wilts fast when touched by anything acidic.