If you associate the word “algae” with pond scum, I’d like to introduce you to a more refined relative, the noble nori. This tasty and nutritious seaweed has been a staple in asian and celtic cuisine for centuries. Most of the world’s nori is cultivated along the coasts of Japan, Korea and China, as well as Scotland and Wales, where they call it laver and turn it into a paste named laverbread. Legendary actor Richard Burton, a native of Wales, reportedly called laverbread “Welshman’s caviar.”
Seaweed’s culinary potential is so great that in 1966, Time magazine predicted that by the year 2000, “huge fields of kelp and other kinds of seaweed will be tended by undersea ‘farmers’ — frogmen who will live for months at a time in submerged bunkhouses.”
Forty four years later, the American seaweed industry is only just beginning to take off, most notably on the coast of Maine. Is America finally ready to embrace algaes and all their briny benefits?
Sea vegetables are rightly prized for being rich in protein, essential vitamins, minerals, and important trace elements that we don’t get from “land” vegetables. They’ve been shown to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease, and can lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. Some varieties even have the ability to bind with toxins, preventing our bodies from absorbing heavy metals like lead or mercury that sometimes contaminate our food.
All this, and they’re tasty, too, imparting a savory flavor that’s known as umami. But though nori-wrapped sushi rolls have become widely available here in recent decades, most seaweed in the American diet comes from processed foods like McDonald’s milkshakes, which are thickened by carrageenan, an Irish moss related to nori.
And most of us are only likely to encounter fresh seaweed at the beach in the summer, where we see it as sandy strands of debris instead of a delicacy free for the taking. But it’s right now, during the months of January and February, that the Japanese farmers are harvesting the nori they’ve spent months carefully cultivating in coves on rope nets suspended between bamboo poles. After gently gathering this fragile seaweed, the nori farmers spread it on bamboo frames and dry it slowly in a process that’s very similar to making rice paper. From there it gets cut up into nori sheets, of which the Japanese consume roughly nine billion a year.
We may never match that rate of consumption, but as Julianna Hever so ably demonstrates in this week’s cooking demo with her super-speedy “noritos,” those packets of nori sheets offer a fantastic way to make a burrito-inspired meal that’s cheap, healthy and delicious in record time. Check out our recipe for Around the World Noritos, and you’ll see just how quickly and easily you can create all kinds of variations on the traditional tortilla.
You may be inspired to create your own noritos with whatever you’ve got handy; if you hit on an especially winning combination, by all means, please do share it with us.
So I’m going to go out on a limb here–or, rather, a bamboo pole–and predict that by the year 2050, family farmers will be tending small patches of sea vegetables in coves all along both coasts. We’ll be snacking on Noritos instead of Doritos, and we’ll be running our cars on algae-based biofuels, too. Technological advances may or may not have made us all independently wealthy, but we’ll be collectively healthier. Which is a good thing, because our politicians will probably still be haggling over health care reform.