Nori is one of the most popular ingredients in Japanese cuisine. It’s used for wrapping sushi, added to soups, stews, and noodles to add a delicious smoky flavour, and even toasted to create a fantastic (and very more-ish) snack. These dried sheets of edible algae seem like such a simple product, but the truth could not be more different.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the many stages required to get nori from the sea to your plate.
The first stage of nori is growing the algae itself. This normally starts on-shore where the algae is cultivated in temperature controlled vats until they are large enough to be transferred to seeding nets. These are thick ropes that are seeded with the juvenile algae and suspended below the water where the plants will continue to grow and prosper until harvest time.
Nori is harvested by means of small boats that sail out to the nori fields, each one fitted with a powerful suction hose. These literally suck the nori from the growing nets, directly into the hull of their boats, filtering out the gallons of seawater in the process. Once the hull is filled, the boat will return to port and unload its cargo by reversing the flow on the suction hose.
The freshly-harvested nori is taken to a specialist facility for washing, drying, and packing. It’s essential that these processes are completed as soon as possible after harvesting, to maintain the quality of the nori.
The first of these stages is washing, which involves rinsing the nori in fresh water to remove any foreign bodies that may have attached themselves in the sea, as well as any saltwater residue. This ensures only pure nori is passed onto the drying stage
Before drying, all the water is squeezed out of the nori by means of a mechanical press. The loose algae is formed into long sheets (not the small, square sheets of roasted nori you’re familiar with!) and laid on plates in preparation for the drying process. The dryer is a specialised oven that carefully bakes any remaining moisture out of the nori. The drying process requires careful monitoring as they are not looking to cook the nori at this stage, merely dehydrate it to produce a dry, raw material.
These raw nori sheets are bundled together in groups of 100 and carefully folded by a specialised packing machine. A paper band bearing the company logo on is then taped around the bundle to fold it up for easier packing. The raw nori bundles are then packed into large boxes and sent off for grading.
The nori grading industry in Kyushu is centuries-old, comprising many independent components. Boxes of raw nori are shipped here to be inspected and graded by skilled craftsmen with decades of experience. They inspect each bundle of nori by eye to check for key indicators of quality. Once they are satisfied, the nori is repackaged, marked grading information and shipped off for storage.
At this point, the nori still qualifies as fresh produce. Sometimes it is roasted immediately, but its more commonly put into frozen storage in a giant warehouse. Nori survives incredibly well under these circumstances. In fact, our very own founder, Stu, once visited a nori storage freezer in Kyushu that held a 20 year supply of frozen raw nori.
A single case of raw nori from each harvest is sent to the auction house as a sample. Specialist nori buyers examine the nori for quality, use their own skill and the graders’ marks to reach their final verdict. They may take a single piece of nori to a small tasting station for sampling. Here nori can be quickly toasted and tasted in its roasted form.
Surprisingly, nori prices are not fixed. Much like car and cattle auctions, the price is determined by what people are prepared to bid on the day. Once a buyer is satisfied with his selection, he must put in a bid for it, and hope that he wins. As you might expect, the highest grade of nori will command a higher price at any auction, while nori of a lower quality can be snapped up for less.
The purchased nori is shipped from the storage freezers to the roasting facility. Raw nori sheets are cut to shape and placed on a conveyor belt that carries them through hot ovens, where each is roasted to perfection. This is a precision process, with both the nori and the ovens being checked regularly throughout. The raw nori sheets are also checked for foreign bodies and other contaminants, even being passed through a metal detector prior to the roasting process.
Once they’ve been roasted, the nori sheets are packaged and branded with the buyer’s company logo. They’re most commonly packed in multiples of 5, 10, 50 or 100 sheets. The grading listed on the packaging is how the buyer chooses to market it and may bear no relation to the formal grading performed by the experienced professionals earlier in the process. Likewise, A-grade nori from one brand may be completely different in quality from A-grade nori from another. For this reason, it is essential to find a brand of nori that you trust to grade their product appropriately.
After packaging and branding, the packed nori is boxed, ready for collection by the buyer.
It’s almost the end of the road for the nori. The nori trader collects the packaged nori from the producers and transports it to its penultimate destination. Usually this will be an exporters warehouse, from where it will be shipped to retail partners across the globe, or a local wholesaler, who will offer it for direct sale to restaurants and local retailers.
And there you have it! Nori is an incredible and versatile ingredient. Despite all the effort that goes into its cultivation and production, the end result is well worth it. Here at SushiSushi, we have a wide variety of nori products in permanent stock, so come visit our online store today.
Big News: We have now been added as an approved supporter of Japanese food by the Japanese Government itself! We have officially received our Program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas certificate from the Japanese Government. 🇯🇵 We are 1 of only 5 certified suppliers in the whole United Kingdom verified!*