Nutrition Powerhouse with a Deep, Dark Shine
What's this? Shiny black, paper thin, with a faint hint of ocean breeze? 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 yakisoba 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!
History of Nori
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 of Japanese law. On the pages referring to tax payment, there is mention of about 30 types of seaweed, starting with nori and including konbu, wakame, etc. which could be used as payment. Of all 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 wakame, 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 nori off the rocks little by little—a painstaking and painful job that resulted in only a rather sparse amount of nori. The scarcity of the 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.
Cultivation of Nori
Nori was first cultivated purely by accident. Up until the middle of the 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 of the period that led to the general public being able to enjoy it as well.
The shogun who functioned as the head of the military government which ruled during the Edo or Tokugawa (the name of the ruling family) period decreed that the fishermen who worked out of Tokyo Bay (Edo, the old name for Tokyo, was the seat of the 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 of the fish that they had already caught in reserve tanks that they built along the shore. On the partially submerged wooden walls of these holding tanks, a large amount of nori adhered. This was the unforeseen occurrence that led to nori cultivation. Mass nori cultivation was then started on the shore lines of Shinagawa and nearby Omori, both areas of Edo.
Why is Nori Four-sided?
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 of finely chopping freshly harvested nori with 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 then placed in the sun to dry. The result was a paper-thin four-sided sheet of beautiful, shiny black nori! This type of nori was named "Asakusa Nori" and it was distributed through the entire county as one of Edo's local specialties. By virtue of the sheet form, there could now be all sorts of dishes made by wrapping nori around different ingredients.
Norimaki (ingredients wrapped in nori), including rolled sushi, or norimaki sushi, began to be sold by portable food vendors. These yatai sushi 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 norimaki 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 Edomae ryori, or Edo Style cuisine, showing up sprinkled on soba, 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.
Steady Production of Nori
Towards the end of the 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 nori cultivation came about at the hands of a 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, Kyushu, overlooking the sea.
Nutritional Benefits of Nori
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 umami, 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.
From Japan to the World!
Folks in Asia usually consume nori by adding it to their soups, but lately there has been a growing demand for ajitsuke nori (seasoned nori) which is popular for snacking, eaten much the same way as potato chips. This trend has been seen in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, but especially in Shanghai! In the U.S., of course, there was the sushi boom of the 1970s which helped thrust nori into the spotlight. At first, many people weren't quite sure how they felt about this shiny black, paper-like foodstuff, but soon they overcame their hesitation and nori entered the American dietary lifestyle as a natural, delicious healthfood. Today top chefs are paying close attention to nori, creating new and exciting dishes using nori pureé, adding it to dishes like risotto to give them subtle umani flavor, or even as an addition to desserts.
In European countries as well, nori consumption has taken a sudden sharp upturn as the popularity of sushi and other Japanese cuisine exponentially grows.
The face of nori can now be seen worldwide enjoyed in a wide range of cuisine and methods of consumption—from "as is" snacking to the hidden flavor in your dessert! Marukai has a wonderful assortment of nori; you can find just the right sized sheets for wrapping onigiri or making rolled sushi; a variety of ajitsuke nori awaits you as well! High in nutrition, low in calories, nori is a natural healthfood that's easy to add to your everyday menu. Now pass me a few sheets! Who's joining me for some temaki sushi?
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