Eating seaweed may be unheard of for many foreigners but it is actually a more common act than one would think. Sushi lovers will attest to that fact, as various kinds of the Japanese dish make use of nori, an edible seaweed, to hold the rice and fish together.
Nori typically comes in the form of a thin, black sheet that is paper-like in texture. Among the more than 400 different types of edible seaweed, nori is probably the most popular one and is packed full of minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins. As such, it is also used in other dishes including soups, snack foods, and hearty meals.
Nori dates back to the 8th century when it was regarded as a form of taxation in the Code of Taiho, Japan’s administrative reorganization in 703. During this time, the term nori was used to refer to various kinds of seaweed such as wakame, kombu, and hijiki.
According to the fudoki (ancient reports) of the Hitachi Province for the year 721 and of the Izumo Province from 713 to 733, harvesting and drying seaweed was a practice observed by the local communities, indicating that nori also served as a food source in ancient times. By the year 987, it was already recognized as a common type of food.
Initially, nori was served and consumed in paste form. During the Edo Period, when the process of making paper became known in Japan, the sheet form of nori was developed in the district of Asakusa, opening a world of possibilities for the ingredient.
However, after the World War II, Japan’s nori industry suffered a great decline which was primarily caused by the country’s lack of knowledge about the plant’s life cycle. The traditional methods practiced by the locals for the cultivation of crops were not effective for nori, leading to a decrease in seaweed production.
Fortunately, thanks to the work of Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker, a British phycologist, about the algae Porphyra umbilicalis that was also harvested for food in Wales, Japanese scientists were able to develop and apply artificial seeding and growing methods for seaweed, saving the industry from extinction. As such, a statue of Kathleen Baker can be found in Japan referring to her as the “Mother of the Sea” and the savior of Japan’s nori.
At present, Japan’s nori industry faces new struggles due to the increasing amount of seaweed producers from Korea and China. Regardless, Japan continues to be one of the top contributors of the edible seaweed, exporting dried nori to numerous countries around the world.
Nori comes from the red algae genus known as Pyropia. Although the different stages of the algae’s life cycle have been proven to be complicated matters to tackle, understanding them is a possible feat. Over the years, several Japanese biologists have dedicated their time to the production and processing of nori, leading to advanced agricultural methods.
The production of the edible seaweed takes place in the sea, where farmers grow Pyropia plants on suspended nets at the surface of the water; a method known as seeding. The growth of these plants is relatively fast, only requiring 45 days to cultivate at sea before being harvested.
For each seeding, several harvests can be done every ten days. Mechanical harvesters which have a wide array of configurations are used for the process.
Afterward, the raw product is dried and roasted into paper-thin sheets by automated machines that efficiently and consistently duplicate the traditional seaweed processing methods done in ancient times. The typical size of a nori sheet measures 7 inches by 8 inches and weighs about 3 grams.
More than 600 sq. km. of coastal waters are dedicated to nori production in Japan, producing about 350,000 tons per year, valued at more than a billion dollars. Other seaweed producers such as those from China only produce a third of Japan’s but are able to compete by offering their products at a lower selling price.
For example, in the United States where nori is available at different grades, China’s imports are highly popular for only costing 6 cents per sheet, whereas Japan’s products cost nearly 15 times more. Competitive prices pose a problem for Japan’s nori industry but are not likely to make any huge damages, as the country’s local consumption of nori accounts to a big percentage of their annual production.
For foreigners, the most common and most popular use of nori sheets is for sushi. In Japan, however, the edible seaweed is actually used for many other dishes as a garnish or flavoring. Some of the different snacks or meals that make use of nori include:
1. Agedashi Dofu
Agedashi Dofu is a Japanese side dish that uses tofu as its main ingredient. Cubes of tofu are deep fried and served in a light soy sauce based broth. The dish is then topped with thin strips of nori for added flavor.
Aonori, which means blue seaweed, refers to the fresh form of nori. It can be eaten on its own or be used in cooking various Japanese dishes.
Furikake refers to the dry seasoning that the Japanese sprinkle on fish, vegetables, or cooked rice. The seasoning may be made in different ways but usually makes use of sesame seeds, sugar, salt, chopped nori, and dried, ground fish.
Kyaraben refers to bento (Japanese lunch boxes) that feature cute pictures or characters creatively made from various ingredients. Nori is one of the most common decorative foods used for kyaraben, given its paper-like structure.
Makizushi, which comes from the words maki (to roll) and zushi (sushi), refers to sushi roll dishes that consists of rice, raw fish, and other ingredients wrapped in a sheet of nori. As such, it also goes by the name norimaki. Some of the most popular makizushi variations are tekka-maki (tuna roll) and kappa-maki (cucumber roll).
6. Mentaiko Spaghetti
Mentaiko Spaghetti is one of the greatest examples of western dishes that have been modified by Japan to suit their own preferences in taste. It consists of spaghetti noodles topped with mentaiko, or marinated pollock roe, and thin strips of nori.
7. Norimaki Mochi
Norimaki Mochi refers to grilled or toasted rice cakes (mochi) wrapped in nori. It is a traditional Japanese dish that is often served with a light glaze of sweet soy sauce.
Okonomiyaki is a popular dish from Osaka that is best described as a savory pancake made from various ingredients including pork, shrimp, octopus, and cabbage. Its name roughly means “grilling what one likes” when translated into English. Nori flakes are often used as a topping for the dish, along with okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise.
Onigiri is a popular snack food in Japan that serves as their equivalent for sandwiches. However, instead of using bread, the dish mostly consists of rice. Cooked rice is formed into a medium-sized triangular shape and is wrapped by a strip of nori. It is often made without any filling, but there are also several variations that have a small amount of cooked fish or vegetables in the middle.
Ramen is one of the most popular noodle dishes in Japan that comes in several broth variations including shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso (fermented bean paste). Ramen noodles also make use of different toppings such as nori squares, pork cutlets, spring onions, and eggs.
Takoyaki refers to savory pancake balls filled with bits of octopus. It is quite similar to the dish, Okonomiyaki, and also makes use of nori flakes as a topping.
Temaki literally means “hand roll” in English. The dish is often made at home where making makizushi is considered to cause too much hassle. Instead of going through the process of carefully wrapping the rice and other ingredients in a nori sheet using a bamboo sushi roller, a person can simply grab his preferred ingredients and make his own sushi by hand. Temaki dishes are typically formed in a cone shape to prevent the food from slipping out the other end.
13. Zaru Soba
Zaru Soba is another popular noodle dish in Japan that is often served cold on a zaru (bamboo tray). Aside from the topping of nori strips, the noodles come plain, with a separate light soy sauce dip, ginger, and wasabi on the side.
One of the reasons why Japan has been producing and processing nori for many centuries is its richness in various nutrients including protein, iodine, and fiber. Furthermore, it contains a surprisingly low amount of calories which makes it a good item for controlling one’s weight and body fat without having to sacrifice the joys of eating tasty dishes. The main nutrition facts and information of fresh or dried nori that make it beneficial to one’s health are as follows:
Consuming nori is highly recommended for people with constipation, given its high amount of dietary fiber. About 33% of the edible seaweed is made up of fiber, making it a wonderful laxative. In addition, eating the high-fiber food tends to make one feel full for a long period of time which greatly contributes to its role as a weight loss food.
Iodine deficiency can lead to various conditions including hyperthyroidism and goiter. The recommended daily intake of iodine a person needs is 150 micrograms. Sea plants such as nori are great sources of iodine, with nori containing about 6 mg per hundred grams. According to studies, a single roll of sushi already contains 92 micrograms of the mineral, which is a big benefit for sushi lovers.
A hundred grams of nori contains about 88% of the recommended iron intake an individual needs on a daily basis. As if that was not enough, a 2007 Venezuelan study also showed that nori has an absence of phytates, which are known for lowering one’s iron absorption. Compared to other iron-rich foods, nori has been proven to be one of the best sources of the mineral.
Protein is important for building and repairing enzymes, antibodies, and muscles, among other cells. Every hundred grams of nori contains about forty grams of protein. It is considered as one of the most protein-rich foods in the world, alongside soybeans, spirulina, and chlorella.
Nori is known to contain an impressive amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which promote lower cholesterol. A study conducted in the year 2001 proved of the food’s ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels by introducing it to rats that were initially given a high-cholesterol diet. Results showed that the rats’ LDL levels significantly decreased after consuming nori.
A 2010 study involving women of varied age groups showed that individuals who consumed nori had a lower chance of getting breast cancer than those who did not. The study explains that the result was expected, given the edible seaweed’s high content of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, that neutralize cancer-causing agents.
280 mg of calcium and 300 mg of magnesium can be consumed per 100 grams of nori which are equivalent to 28% and 85% of the recommended daily intake for an individual, respectively. Calcium is known by many to be a much-needed nutrient to improve bone health and prevent possible complications such as osteoporosis. However, without magnesium, the body is not able to efficiently absorb calcium. The presence of both nutrients in nori make it an ideal bone-builder food.
Other nutrients provided by a hundred grams of nori include impressive levels of potassium, zinc, thiamine, niacin, folate, riboflavin, and vitamins A, C, E, and K that are either near the recommended daily intake or well over it. These minerals help in lowering blood pressure, improving skin and hair conditions, regulating blood sugar, and maintaining good eyesight.