It’s seaweed season in Japan!
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 22, 2008
LIKE CHOW MEIN AND PIZZA PIE, sushi has transcended its place of origin to become another mealtime option for people in many parts of the world. For example, there’s a large cafeteria in New York City across the street from Grand Central Station offering a selection of ready-to-eat food so varied it would please even the pickiest of American palates. One corner of the establishment is occupied by a Korean merchant doing a brisk business selling sushi. There’s the ironclad proof: the Japanese dish is now as American as a cheese enchilada, kielbasa, or sauerkraut.
There are several ways to prepare sushi, and one of the most common is called makizushi, in which the rice and other ingredients are rolled into a cylindrical shape kept intact by paper-like sheets of processed seaweed.
The word in English for the type of seaweed used is laver, but since that’s unfamiliar to nearly every native speaker, most translated material uses the Japanese word nori.
Everybody knows how food is grown even if they’ve never been on a farm, so it’s easy to picture in the mind’s eye what it would be like to raise an unfamiliar Japanese vegetable, such as the goya from Okinawa.
But it’s unlikely people outside of Japan have given much thought to how the nori that holds the makizushi together is grown and processed. For a start, look at the accompanying photo showing watermen in the Ariake Sea in Kyushu harvesting seaweed last month.
Though they’re dealing with a green plant, Japan considers this business to be part of the maritime industry rather than the agricultural industry. And an industry it is: the country produces more than 340,000 tons of nori a year, worth more than a billion US dollars, in more than 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of coastal waters. The area with the highest production volume and the highest quality product is the same Ariake Sea shown in the photo.
It’s a profitable business, but those watermen earn every yen. The growing season starts in the fall and lasts throughout the winter, so they’re out on the water in boats working during the coldest part of the year. They’re also working in the water—the area shown in that photograph is no more than chest deep.
The ABCs of Nori Cultivation
Seaweed spores are placed on nets, which are fastened to poles sunk into the seabed. The nets are suspended vertically in the Ariake Sea, but in other areas of Japan they are laid out horizontal to the water’s surface. The first crop is harvested after about six weeks, and subsequent harvests can be taken from the same initial seeding in 10-day intervals. The watermen will work nearly round the clock for three or four months straight.
Those two men left before dawn in fishing boats from a small port in Kawasoe-machi to the beds about eight kilometers offshore. They don’t own the beds—they rent the space instead, and the sections they use are determined by lottery every year. After their arrival, they transferred to those work boats to haul in the seaweed. A few hours later, when the boat is full, they’ll take the crop back to shore for processing and then head out again. Most watermen will make two or three round trips during the course of a day.
The freshly harvested seaweed is taken to be processed, and many watermen and their families also handle that part of the job in large sheds built on their property. They use a pitchfork to shovel the raw seaweed into a hopper at one end of a series of machines that will clean, chop, press, dry, bake, and fold the nori in operations that take roughly two hours from start to finish. This results in folded bundles that are inspected and placed in a large wooden box for delivery to the local cooperative, which is responsible for the packaging and distribution.
This year, warmer temperatures in Kyushu delayed the initial placing of the spores, resulting in the latest first harvest in 40 years. The watermen waited because colder water produces nori that is both softer and more delicious.
Seaweed for the Rich and Famous
Just because you’ve seen one sheet of seaweed doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all. The Cadillac of local brands is Saga Nori Ariake-Kai Ichiban. The prefecture and the local fishing cooperatives choose no more than three sheets out of every 10,000 processed for this particular brand. Their asking price is 100 yen ($US 0.95) a sheet.
Now keep all that in mind as you read this article on nori the New York Times ran in their Dining and Wine section two weeks ago. It’s worth a glance for two reasons. First, it provides examples of how Western chefs creatively utilize nori as an ingredient to produce dishes unlike any served in Japan. Second, the tone and content of the prose are so pretentious they turn the piece into unintentional comedy.
In the West Village, Evan Rich whirs through 300 sheets of nori a week at Sumile Sushi — not counting what the restaurant’s sushi chef, Toshio Oguma, uses for maki — blending it with apples simmered in cider for a riff on pork chops with applesauce.
Arnaud Berthelier, at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, in Atlanta, has stirred nori into black truffle-flecked risotto since discovering how well its iodine flavor goes with the earthiness of the truffle.
Ken Oringer, chef at Clio in Boston, sees it as a perfect opportunity to take diners out of their comfort zone…So he showcases nori’s distinctive crispness with a barely sweet caramel-nori croquant bent into a tubular shape and filled with sea urchin and a foam of wasabi and green apple.
Here’s my favorite:
Befitting a chef who orchestrates $400-a-head meals, Mr. Takayama even toasts it himself, something few chefs do. In his prep kitchen he waves the translucent, brownish-red sheets of untoasted nori over a steel disk set on a burner, letting them graze the surface until they turn the familiar dark green.
In other words, the chef to society’s upper crust “orchestrates $400-a-head meals” by doing something that every Japanese housewife does regularly in the home to make a quick snack.
Those tubular shaped caramel-nori croquants filled with a foam of wasabi and green apple will surely come to mind the next time my wife sends me to the shop down the street for some lettuce and tuna maki!