A delicacy, a decree, and the changing times
On a blustery late February day I walked with Atsushi Endo, the 17th head of the Endo lineage, towards a river in Asakurashi, Japan where his ancestors have been harvesting the blue-green algae known as suizenji nori by hand for 250 years. We crossed a small bridge and clambered through tall grasses along the banks of a shallow, slow flowing pool of water, crystal clear but for wind whipped ripples rolling across the surface. The pool was dotted with tufts of groomed grasses. Endo pointed to black clumps of nori gathered at the base of one, and to many more scattered like pebbles all along the sandy floor.
“We don’t plant seeds,” he said. “The nori grows naturally and we just encourage it. Our job is to create the best environment for it.” It’s a weighty task now that suizenji nori is ranked as endangered by the Ministry of the Environment. Once found in a handful of rivers throughout Kumamoto and Fukuoka Prefectures, delicate suizenji nori has perished in the face of modern day threats, namely pollution and climate change. Today the only naturally occurring suizenji nori in all of Japan is found in this 500-meter stretch of the Koganegawa (Golden River) but even here it’s struggling. “The amount of water flowing in this river has decreased,” Endo explained. “With less water the current has slowed, sediment has built up and the width has narrowed.” Suizenji nori thrives in the warm (18°C/65°F), mineral-rich, spring fed water of the Koganegawa. Today Endo must work harder than his ancestors did to safeguard the rare freshwater nori’s natural environment. When the spring that fed the 2km long river began to slow, a well was dug nearby to provide supplemental groundwater. A net at the head of his plot holds large debris at bay, while a net just downstream of a trough catches the nori for harvesting. In between, the carefully tended grasses control the current and anchor fledgling nori.
Endo’s rights and responsibility to protect and harvest suizenji nori is by ancient decree. In 1763, his 8th great-grandfather, who lived in the nearby castle town of Akizuki, discovered suizenji nori growing here. His son later devised a way to dry the nori on flat stones. The custom of the times dictated that the townspeople appeal to their lord with patriotic gifts of rare and significant regional commodities. In 1793 Endo’s 7th great-grandfather presented his dried suizenji nori to the Akizuki shogunate in the form of a paper-thin sheet of black nori that when reconstituted in water swelled to almost 5mm thick. The shogunate was pleased – it would become a delicacy served at ceremonial banquets – and named the product jyu-sen-tai 寿泉苔(long life spring moss). He gave Endo’s family the exclusive rights to harvest suizenji nori and bestowed the river from which it came the name Koganegawa (Golden River).
While I stood on the banks of the Koganegawa, three men in boots unloaded large containers from the bed of a pick-up truck and waded into the river. They pulled back black tarps shading the nori. One began gently raking stray clumps of nori towards the collection trough while the others used stiff nets to scoop nori from the water. One handed me a sample of the gelatinous green-black substance. It was slippery in the mouth and tasted faintly nutty. The men worked for just twenty minutes until five containers were mostly full.
Next to Endo’s small shop, in a large warehouse housing two channels of water, the day’s harvest is immediately cleaned. The men sat on wooden planks suspended just above the water. Each worked a large floating screen-bottomed wooden vat. Batch by batch, for several hours, they threshed nori from debris as though panning for gold.
In late winter and early spring, when harvests are small, the cleaned nori is salted for several hours and then rinsed thoroughly in cold well water. It emerges bright emerald green. Endo sells a variety of shiozuke (salted nori) products in his shop in Asakurashi. Fresh shiozuke is used in clear broth soups or dressed with a vinegar-based sauce. It is added to sashimi konnyaku, the jewel green flecks adorning an otherwise drab food. Endo also makes satozuke (candied suizenji nori) that is served as higashi (dry sweets) with matcha in tea ceremony.
Towards summer, when harvests grow more plentiful, Endo makes the same dried sheets of nori that curried favor with the Akizuki shogunate so many years ago. Each sheet requires one kilogram of minced fresh nori. As it dries over the course of a week it shrinks to a fraction of its original thickness and weight. Each sheet is carefully polished, packaged, and sent to Kyoto where shops supplying Japan’s most traditional foods still flourish. This specialty product is used in traditional kaiseki dishes, often cut into decorative motifs of the season or occasion, and reconstituted in water. The nori swells into an edible spongy decoration often arranged alongside sashimi.
In a country full of delicacies, suizenji nori is the most specific one I’ve encountered. The freshwater algae are rare plants rendered a most rarified food. Embraced by the slow food movement and recognized by Japan as a national treasure, suizenji nori products are prized. But today’s harvests are a fraction of what they once were and Endo faces mounting challenges to preserve both the nori itself and the work that has defined his family for centuries.
Stop by the journal for images of the suizenji nori shiozuke dishes.