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Sashimi and Sushi - Nori

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks


I can hear it crackle like kindling on fire, as I carefully cup a half sheet of nori in one hand. With the other, I add a layer of rice and a bit of fish. Quickly—for there is no time to spare—I wrap the nori around these ingredients to form a cone-shaped parcel. This is temaki, or a hand roll, and it’s perhaps the ideal way to enjoy high-quality nori. While this Japanese sea vegetable is referred to as mere “seaweed” in America, this is an unfair moniker. A weed is something you don’t want, and I promise you, you do want my nori.

Unlike nori maki, the most common sushi, temaki is made so quickly that the moisture from the air and rice has no time to leach into the nori, making it soggy. Instead, when you bite into the roll, it crunches under your teeth and melts quickly in your mouth, revealing an oceanic tang, a whiff of the sea. I suggest temaki to customers who sit at the sushi bar, because the height of the nori’s crispness won’t survive a trip to the table. It is my gift to those who choose to sit directly in front of me, who put themselves in my hands.

Officially, nori is a red algae, which might sound strange given that most of us know nori as the strip of greenish black outside of our sushi rolls. In fact, nori is a reddish-brown color when fishermen harvest it from Ariake, Tokyo, and Seto-uchi bays. As with cheese or wine, the companies that make sheets of nori from the harvested product vary from large operations that mass-produce nori to small, family-run businesses whose care is evident in their product. Either way, the process is similar: Nori is made into a mash and spread thinly—think cream cheese on a bagel—onto a flat surface. Then it is dried, peeled off, and cut into 8 x 7 1/2 inch (20 x 19 cm) sheets. Finally, most nori is toasted, which brings out its flavor and turns it that familiar dark green. Before it’s sold, nori is sorted into many grades, which vary widely in price. The quality, and hence price, of the nori varies according to weather, location, and sea conditions of the place where it is harvested. It’s worth buying the best you can find.

This is not to say that you can’t enjoy nori in other ways. Nori usage is by no means restricted to sushi. In Japan, nori shows up nearly everywhere you look: wrapped around onigiri, fist-sized balls of rice stuffed with tarako (cod roe) or ume (the savory pickled Japanese apricot), among other treats; shredded and sprinkled on top of soba noodles; or accompanying a traditional Japanese breakfast, where pieces of nori appear in a pile beside a bowl of white rice and small dish of soy sauce. You use your chopsticks to grab a small piece of nori, dip one side of it in the soy sauce, and use it to nab some rice.

Outside of Japan, nori makes its most frequent appearance in nori maki, which is rolled in a bamboo mat and sliced in pieces. Its flavor provides a deliciously briny, slightly smoky accent to the rice and fish or vegetable, even if it does not sport the supreme crispness of a hand roll. If along with nigiri sushi (morsels of fish on top of fingers of rice), you see hand rolls on your plate, you may want to eat them quickly so you catch the nori when it’s still slightly crisp. This is why I prefer not to serve inside-out rolls—that is, rolls whose outermost layer is rice, not nori. In these, the nori is hidden, its subtle flavor obscured. However, when a customer requests an inside-out roll, I am happy to give them what they want, still making it with the highest quality nori.

You’ll find nori in some shape or form in the cupboards of most Japanese people, so it should come as no surprise that the Japanese eat about 10 billion sheets per year. In the United States, as you might imagine, that number is far less, though it’s in the hundreds of millions and growing quickly. Nori happens to be packed with vitamins A and B, as well as calcium and iron. That’s why it used to be available not only in Asian specialty stores, but in health food stores. Now you can find it in many supermarkets throughout the United States.

The nori I use, which suits my sushi best, comes from Japan, where it has been cultivated for centuries. I won’t reveal how much it costs—that wouldn’t be gentlemanly, would it?—but I will tell you about it. The best Japanese nori is harvested by fishermen in Ariake Bay, off the coast of Kyushu. Of this, I buy shin nori, or nori from the first harvest, which has the cleanest flavor and the most delicate texture.

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