Nori glory

A crackly Japanese treat

April 15, 2011

How did you celebrate Nori Day this year?

In Shibushi, April 14 is nori day. Citizens of this small city at the southern tip of Japan gather to honor the nori industry and Kathleen Drew-Baker, an English botanist who cracked the lifecycle of the little seaweed and made modern nori production possible. There is even a statue of Drew-Baker, who is billed as “Mother of the Sea.” (I learned all of this from Trevor Corson’s excellent book The Story of Sushi.)

Nori, at its best, is rice’s indispensable partner. It’s the wrapper for maki sushi. Solo, it’s chip-like, salty and snackworthy. It holds onigiri (rice balls) in its embrace. Crumbled on a bowl of steamed rice, it’s part of a complete Japanese breakfast (along with miso soup, fish, pickles, and Froot Loops). But I’ve never been sure whether I was buying the right nori.

So in honor of Nori Day, I decided to wrap myself in crisp, briny wisdom. I’ve always selected my nori using the old saw about navigating a wine list: take the second-cheapest option. Then I’d use a couple of sheets, and the rest would sit around until it got stale and I threw it out. There had to be a more rigorous approach to this versatile ingredient.

First, however, I had to answer a more pressing question: Given the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, is nori safe to eat? I ran this query by Harris Salat, an authority on Japanese food and the co-author of three cookbooks, including The Japanese Grill, which comes out this month.

grilled chicken nori wraps
Wrap nori around rice, grilled chicken, whatever you like.

“Japan has the most stringent food-safety laws in the world,” says Salat. “The primary area of production for nori is hundreds of miles away from the radiation. So I feel like there is no danger, and we have to put this into perspective and also know that you have the most food-obsessed nation in the world, incredibly vigilant within their own population about any danger in their food.”

I hope that’s reassuring, because I have a lot to report about nori. For that matter, if you’re still worried about Japanese imports, I’m going to tell you about Korean nori.

Old school and new

Nori is a semi-ancient food. People have been eating all sorts of seaweed since prehistoric times, of course. Nori in its wild form is not one of the more promising foodstuffs: it’s dark and slimy and collects on rocks. You know what they say about oysters? Same deal.

Nori doesn’t just resemble paper. It is paper. “In a process traceable to the 1600s in the city of Edo, now Tokyo, nori was developed by traditional paper makers who applied their craft to press seaweed growing in Tokyo Bay into edible paper,” writes Salat.

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I could geek out on this stuff forever, but if we’re going to make it to the Nori Day festival on time, we need to get shopping. At my local Japanese supermarket, Uwajimaya, the nori aisle is out of control. It’s not quite as perplexing as the ramen aisle, which boasts literally hundreds of varieties, but here in seaweed-ville you’ll find dozens of options. Nori from Japan or Korea. Flavored and unflavored nori. Large sizes and small. (Letter size, ledger size . . . just kidding.) Which one to buy?

First, I asked Eric Gower, the author of The Breakaway Cook. “My feeling is that it really doesn’t matter all that much. Its main appealing characteristic, to me, is texture, and I find that all the nori they sell in the Japanese market crisps up nicely when you waft it over a low flame,” he says. “It’s like everything: you can go totally artisanal and high end, but is the payoff worth it? I happen to think not, for nori; as long as it’s not too fishy and it crisps, I’m happy with it.”

I reread Gower’s email while standing in the nori aisle. He didn’t intend it to sound this way, of course, but somehow my small brain rearranged his words to say, “That high-end nori is too good for an untrained palate like yours. Don’t trouble yourself.” So I bought the most expensive nori in the store.

Luckily, even though Japanese nori is graded on literally dozens of different attributes of flavor, texture, and appearance, the Yamamotoyama Ariake Premium didn’t command Burgundy-like prices. It was $7 for 10 sheets.

Next, I turned to Naomi Kakiuchi, who teaches Asian cooking classes in Seattle. “When we teach our sushi classes, we tell people, ‘Don’t buy the most expensive, and don’t buy the really el-cheapo one,’” she says. “Buy the middle-of-the-road. It will be slightly thicker, it will taste better, and it will be fresh, because everybody buys the middle one.”

How about a third opinion? “You could look at all this nori and go, my God,” says Salat. “I think that you can go ahead and find some middle-of-the-road nori. If you found a Japanese nori that’s in the middle of the price range of the nori at the market, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful.”

There you have it: Everyone agrees I’m a big doofus for buying the expensive nori. Well, I will show them!

The tasting

Shocker: Everyone was right. The Ariake Premium nori was great: thin, crackling-crisp, and melt-in-your-mouth. It made perfect temaki hand rolls. But so did the midrange Yamamotoyama red label, at a third of the price. I also tried the El Cheapo. It was fishy-tasting and chewier, but frankly still better than no nori at all.

The type of nori I’m talking about (and it’s by far the most common kind) is called yaki nori. It’s pretoasted. It’s best purchased in small quantities (10 sheets) and used quickly. Theoretically, you can find untoasted nori and toast it yourself over charcoal. I didn’t find it, and almost nobody actually does this anymore.

Nori is very thin and very dry, and it takes about six water molecules to make it soggy. Sometimes this is what you want. “It tastes best when the seaweed gets moist and comes together as one with the rice,” observes Mariko Futaki, a character in Tetsu Kariya’s manga Oishinbo: The Joy of Rice. Even in that case, however, you want fresh, crisp nori absorbing water from the rice, not stale nori.

Luckily, it’s easy to rejuvenate stale nori. “If it gets a little humid and limp, they can retoast it by just turning on their burner and waving it over the top about two or three times, making like three passes, then flip it over and do the other side three passes,” says Kakiuchi. This works fine over a gas or electric burner.

Leftover nori should be stored in an airtight bag in the freezer, but after a while it will start to taste funky — less fresh and marine, more bilgewatery. At this point, Salat recommends making tsukudani, or pickled nori spread. “It’s not lost, and you shouldn’t chuck it,” he says. “You’ll make a grandma in Japan cry.”

You might not even have to go that far to find the grandma. Kakiuchi told me her grandmother used to harvest nori. I assumed this would be a story about how Grandmother worked the nori fields in the Old Country. Nope. This was on Bainbridge Island, half an hour by ferry from where I live in Seattle.

“She used to go out and harvest her own and bring it back and wash it and chop it up and lay it out and make her own sheets,” says Kakiuchi. “And then, the ones that she didn’t make for sushi nori, they were just long strands, before she chopped them, and she just hung them over one of those long clotheslines. And we used to eat it like a treat, big long strips of it.”

For snacking, look to Korea

Finally, we’ve arrived in snack heaven. If you haven’t had Korean nori (also known as gim, kim, or salted laver), imagine a slightly briny potato chip, brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled with big crystals of sea salt. Now subtract the chip, because this stuff is whisper-thin and disappears when you bite into it, except when it sticks to the roof of your mouth.

Korean nori is usually sold in multiple 10-packs for freshness. (Yes, it’s a nightmare of overpackaging.) The squares are small and perfect for stuffing in your mouth whole or wrapping a small rice ball. I’ve also seen it, with slightly less packaging, at Trader Joe’s.

Fans of Japanese and Korean food love to take sides, so I ask Salat what he thinks of Korean nori. Is it a pale imitation of the Japanese original?

He thinks about it for about half a second. “It’s great! That’s my answer.”

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

There is 1 comment on this item
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1. by Erika Szymanski on Apr 20, 2011 at 1:38 PM PDT

My stone-age family does indeed still toast its own nori, and I’m speaking of my Polish father here, not a Japanese grandmother. I suspect that this reflects my father purchasing untoasted nori in Portland thirty years ago and never losing the habit. Even if the nori we purchase is pretoasted, a few seconds over a gas flame does wonders for freshly crisping it up. A gas stove works just fine -- I’m sure charcoal tastes better, but we won’t fire up the charcoal grill for ten seconds of nori-toasting activity. Ten seconds over a gas burner for extra-crispy nori? That’s worth it!

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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