20 Jun The nets at sea
With a history that stretches back centuries, Japan can boast some of the most refined and perfected culinary arts. But as the youth of Japan rapidly adopt a culture of convenience from the west it’s clear that those traditions are in danger.
As I wrote for the Art of Eating, in the span between today’s grandparents and their grandchildren, a generation has lost a collective understanding of what nori should taste like. The market for top of the line nori dwindles as western eating habits replace Japanese cuisine in home kitchens. Meanwhile the market for standard nori to use in prepackaged processed foods grows. Premium nori fetches little more than standard nori at auction. It’s almost not worth it for aquafarmers to make premium nori. The only buyers left are a handful of top Japanese chefs.
Conversely in the States, with a culinary history that pales in comparison, we are taking interest in where and how top quality foods from around the world are made. For that reason Tsunehiro Kawahara wants to get his premium nori into the hands of a foreign audience. It may be the thing that saves the industry, he thinks.
Nori contains three main flavor characteristics, umami, salt, and sweet. Nori grown in different conditions will posses a different balance of those three qualities, alongside differences in color, sheen, and texture. Though we think of nori as such a very Japanese ingredient, umami, salty, and sweet are flexible flavors that can easily fit into a western flavor palate. One barrier to westerners more readily adopting nori into their diets has been that 9 x 11 inch paper-thin sheet. What on earth do you do with it?
I’ve found two products that I think present sophisticated but more approachable ways to enjoy nori. The first is a delicacy called nama nori, akin to caviar and notable for its rich taste, creamy texture, and rarity. I could see nama nori quickly embraced by the creative talent of chefs in top restaurants around the world.
Nama is the word for raw in Japanese and nama nori is just that, raw nori. After the first harvest Kawahara receives baskets of the season’s most tender and pure raw nori straight off of Kawasaki’s boat. Given a thorough but gentle cleaning that preserves just the right amount of salinity, the nori is packaged and immediately frozen. Nama nori is the closest you can get to the experience of plucking nori right off the nets at sea. It has a springy, briny bite and makes for a perfect little appetizer. In our house, if eating a traditional meal paired with sake, we would season the nama nori with a dressing of daidai (bitter citrus) juice or chidori-su (a light rice wine vinegar) and light soy. If the meal is western leaning and paired with a white wine, we would bring good olive oil and salt to the table. For those who find the taste a little too of-the-sea, a squeeze of lemon is a perfect final touch.