Back in the days before the mainstream acceptance of Japanese food, more than a few Westerners would have looked positively askance at the prospect of actually downing pieces of raw fish. And just as rather less uncooked fish, notably as sushi, was eaten in other countries back in that unenlightened age, so was there generally less acceptance as a comestible of the most frequent wrapping around a hand-shaped piece of vinegared rice—the paper-like, deep-green nori.
The name “nori” refers to laver (edible species of the alga Porphyra) as well as to the thin, crisp sheets made from the shredded seaweed. Nori has been cultivated in sheltered, shallow offshore waters of Japan since the seventeenth century. And in many parts of the country, the poles supporting nets, over which the cultivated nori spores are spread and left to grow, can be seen stretching out from the shore.
Nori is commonly seen in gunkanmaki “battleship” sushi, where a strip of the seaweed is wrapped around a piece of sushi rice to create a bite-size oval base for such toppings as sea urchin (uni) and salmon roe. Nori is also a vital ingredient in makizushi, in which sushi rice with a filling, such as tuna, cucumber or kampyo dried-gourd strip, is shaped into a nori-covered roll, which is then cut into thick slices.
Outside the sushi restaurant, nori finds wide application, from the seven-spice chili mix of shichimi togarashi, which puts delectable zest into a bowl of noodles, to a highly favored flavoring for potato chips. But perhaps the way in which nori is most widely enjoyed is in the hugely popular snack known as onigiri, which has a sandwich-like portability and can be readily consumed. Though often translated into English as rice balls, the onigiri sold in Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores are usually triangular and come with a wide variety of fillings, ranging from ordinary fish and pickles to such exotica as smoked oysters and pimento olives. Not all onigiri need be covered with nori, but the most frequently seen type comes with the familiar pine-green jacket, whereby an ingenious wrapping method separates the seaweed from the rice, keeping the so-important crispness to the nori until the first sublime, crunchily soft bite.
Nori is certainly the kind of Japanese seaweed that is most familiar in the West, but it is only one of many varieties widely eaten and enjoyed in this country. Often, the type of seaweed eaten first during the day by Japanese is wakame—lobe-leaf seaweed. Along with such ingredients as different vegetables, tofu and clams, wakame typically appears in miso soup, which as an accompaniment to their breakfast for a great many Japanese is just as important a part to the start of their day as getting out of bed. Wakame is usually sold in stores in dried form. It has a pleasant texture with a fresh, vegetable crispness, and the Japanese have been eating the stuff since ancient times.
Another type of seaweed is important, though less visually apparent, in that so-vital breakfast serving of miso soup. An essential part of the soup is the stock known as “dashi,” which is classically made from katsuobushi (dried, cured skipjack tuna) and the kelp known as kombu. As well as in miso soup, the subtle flavor of dashi appears in a huge variety of Japanese dishes, and kombu too is used in other ways apart from in dashi. Kombu can be deep-fried or sautéed as a vegetable, and it appears in the simmered dishes known as nimono, which is one of the principal ways of serving vegetables.
Among other varieties of seaweed, hijiki is notable. This seaweed becomes rich black when boiled before drying, and it makes a flavorsome appearance in hijiki mame, in which soybeans and hijiki are sautéed in oil and seasoned with soy sauce and sugar. Hijiki mame is very rich in minerals and proteins, and this nutritional aspect of all kinds of seaweed really should win over great numbers of devotees overseas. Seaweed is one of those so-rare wonder foods that while being high in nutrition also happen to be spectacularly low in calories.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.