Nori Seaweed

What's this? Shiny block, paper thin, with a faint hint ofoceaiifbreeze? No doubt this was a common reaction when first coming across a sheet of nori. Now it's a lot more familiar and has become quite popular here in the U.S. Nori is an edible marine plant, usually sold lightly toasted as yakinori. It's most well known as the outer wrap on certain types of sushi, and onigiri (rice balls), and it's also used for adding extra flavor to dishes like yakisobo by sprinkling small shreds on top. It's even delicious straight out of the package! Currently in Japan alone, 9 billion sheets of nori are produced annually, and the average annual consumption by a single person is 80 sheets! Nori has been enjoyed for a long time, and can be found in the pantry of most Japanese households. Nori is also often given as gifts, and premium grades can command a pretty penny!


Remnants of marine plants were discovered in ancient Japanese sites dating from the prehistoric Jomon and Yayoi periods. From this, we can infer that Japanese people were consuming sea plants at this extremely early stage in their history. For people living on the Japanese archipelago, surrounded by water on all four sides, these vitamin and mineral rich, easily accessible foods, which included nori, were an important source of nutrition. Nori made its first documented appearance in Japanese history in the 18th century, in the Taiho Code, the earliest compilation ofJapanese law. On the pages referring to tax payment, there is mention of about 30 types of seaweed, starting with nori and including konbu, wokome, etc. which could be used as payment. Ofall the seaweed, however, it was nori that was considered the very best. Wild nori, whose growing season starts in the fall and harvesting begins in December, only grows in very cold seawater. Unlike the leaf-shaped konbu and wokome, nori is small and algae-like, and grows generally by clinging to underwater rocks. In the cold winter months, the harvester would have had to enter the frigid water and carefully hand-pluck the norioffthe rocks little by little-a painstaking and painful job that resulted in only a rather sparse amount of nori. The scarcity ofthe commodity and difficulty of harvesting it is what gave nori much more value than the other seaweed. And so, it was no surprise that nori was reserved solely for the upper crust of society, from the Heian period (794-1185) through to the Kamakura period (1185-1333), first as an offering to the Imperial Household and then to the new military elite. The manner in which nori was eaten in those days was to add it (after being dried in the sun) to soups, or boil it down to a paste.


Nori was first cultivated purely by accident. Up until the middle ofthe Edo period (1603-1868), nori towered kinglike above the other types of seaweed, and it was reserved for the elite. But a chance occurrence took place at the beginning ofthe period that led to the general public being able to enjoy it as well. The shogun who functioned as the head ofthe military government which ruled during the Edo or Tokugawa (the name ofthe ruling family) period decreed that the fishermen who worked out of Tokyo Bay (Edo, the old name for Tokyo, was the seat ofthe Tokugawa government) hand over the freshly caught fish for their personal consumption. In bad weather, the fishermen were not able to go out to sea, so they held some ofthe fish that they had already caught in reserve tanks that they built along the shore. On the partially submerged wooden walls ofthese holding tanks, a large amount of noriadhered. This was the unforeseen occurrence that led to nori cultivation. I\/lass nori cultivation was then started on the shorelines of Shinagawa and nearby Omori, both areas of Edo.


Around 1718, in another district of Edo called Asakusa, the method of making "sheet" nori was born using the technique for making Japanese paper, or washi. This method consisted offinely chopping freshly harvested noriwith some water until a paste-like texture formed. The paste was then spread thinly and evenly onto a four-sided bamboo mat placed into a four-sided wooden frame, topped with another mat and secured by another frame. This contraption was then lowered into a tub of water, and gently shaken while submerged to aid the spreading process. The frame was then lifted out, and disassembled, leaving the sheet of wet nori on one bamboo mat, which was twen placed in the sun to dry. The result was a paper-thin four-sided sheet of beautiful, shiny back nori! This type of nori was named "Asokuso Nori" and it was distributed twrough the entire county as one of Edo's local specialties. By virtue ofthe sheet form, there coulc now be all sorts ofdishes made by wrapping nori around different ingredients. Norimaki (ingredients wrapped in nori), including rolled sushi, or norimoki sushi, began to be sold by portable food vendors. These yotoisushi helped to disseminate norimaki, which became a big hit among the Edokko (a term for people born and raised in Tokyo and which contains a sense of pride and nostalgia for the Edo of yore). These Edokko enjoyed norimoki much in the same way as we enjoy fast food today. It was around this time when the food culture of Edo was at its peak. Nori permeated the food culture as an important ingredient of the Edomnae ryori, or Edo Style cuisine, showing up sprinkled on sobo, or in light soups, as well as a variety of other dishes. As nori consumption grew, so did the request for greater supply, and new locations outside of Edo were created to meet the burgeoning demand.


Towards the end ofthe Meiji period (1868-1912) nori was being enjoyed in almost every corner of Japan. The cultivation process that began in the early Edo period and spread nationwide by its end was flourishing as the Meiji period began. However, nori cultivation during the early years was dependent on the whims of Mother Nature, which hardly made for reliable production, even if there were a number of harvest sites. Reliable noricultivation came about at the hands ofa British scientist named Kathleen Drew-Baker in 1949. Studying the life cycle of nori, she was able to revolutionize nori farming practice which led to dependable, constant nori production. Thanks to her, it is now possible for Japan to produce 9 billion sheets of nori every year. There is a statue of her, erected by Japanese nori famers in Kumamoto, Khyushu, overlooking the sea.


There is an old Japanese saying, "Two sheets of nori a day keeps the doctor away." (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?) Just one thin sheet of nori contains 40% protein, a higher percentage than is found in egg yolks or soy beans. Rich in the amino acids that make up umomi, the "savory" taste which is the flavor foundation of most Japanese cooking, nori also contains 12 types of vitamins, including A, B, C and others which do not easily break down when exposed to heat. Nori also contains calcium, iron, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), taurine, fiber, etc.-totaling approximately 40 different types of nutrients. This, as well as the fact that it can be eaten as is, can be easily found at grocery stores, and is extremely low in calories, has garnered attention from all over the world.