Exploring Nori’s Legacy: 20 Insights from Its History

If you are a fan of Japanese cuisine or have been following the latest healthy food trends, you’ve probably become acquainted with Nori already. Whether you call it Nori, Laver, or Gim, it’s a fact that this Japanese seaweed has made its way to global popularity. However, although more and more people are eating Nori, few people know about its place in history. 

So, what is the history behind Nori seaweed? Seaweed has been a part of the daily East Asian diet for centuries. Once grown on bamboo sticks and handpicked from the wild, this alga has given rise to large-scale, bustling industries that ship millions of tons internationally. But how did this seaweed receive so much attention?

We’re here to answer all your burning questions about Nori’s biggest and most important moments. Without further ado, let’s get started and explore all the interesting facts and important moments of Nori in history. 

1. The Taihō Code

Nori has been a part of Japanese culture and life for centuries. Although it is hard to know exactly when we know that Nori was mentioned in the Taihō Code from 703 AD. The Taihō Code was the oldest Japanese statute code enacted at the end of the Asuka period. In this ancient writing, twenty-nine kinds of marine products were mentioned as a form of taxation. Eight of them were seaweeds, and Nori was one of them! 

According to the Tahiō Code, Nori was the best food out of all the foods from the ocean to pay tribute to the Emperor. This little piece of information makes it out of the question that Nori was already a common and highly consumed seaweed at least 1,300 years ago!

2. Human Cultivation of Nori Begins

Nori was gathered in the wild during the ancient days. However, the human cultivation of Nori began only in the late 1600s with the rise of Tokugawa leyasu, who moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. This Japanese shogun would order fresh fish every day, pressuring the local fishermen to maintain a steady supply. To fulfill Tokugawa’s demand, local fishers began crafting traps with bamboo stakes and nets.

Soon, they realized that seaweed thrived around the stakes that held the nets in place and began to drive bamboo stakes on purpose to promote algae growth. Later, the stakes evolved into a more efficient horizontal net system along the ocean surface. Although these fishermen may not have realized it, they had started Nori agriculture, which would continue to grow and develop for years to come.

3. From Paste to Sheet

The ancient Japanese would not have been familiar with the paper-thin Nori we have today. It was only in the Edo period that the Japanese began to produce Nori sheets as we know them today. Until up to the 18th century, Nori was served and consumed in a thick paste. Thanks to the art of papermaking, the first sheet form of Nori was created in Asakusa, which is contemporary Tokyo, in 1750.

4. Nori Appears in English Publication

Carl Peter Thunberg, a pupil, and successor of Carl Linnaeus, was known for traveling worldwide, observing local cultures, plants, and animals, and writing about them. And yes, this man spent 18 incredible years in the fascinating islands of Japan in 1775-1776.

It is in the writings of Thunberg, C. P. Thunberg’s Trav., that the word Nori first appears in the English language, which was published in 1796. Thunberg uses the conjugation “Awa Nori,” most likely referring to what is now called Aonori.

5. World War II and Nori

Things hit hard for Japan in the 20th century. After handling a series of severe typhoons, the devastations of World War II, and pollution from growing industrialization, Nori had gone extinct from the coasts by 1948.

Things couldn’t have been worse! At a time when soldiers were returning home, food supply was scarce, and Nori seemed to have disappeared. The majority of fishing fleets had been bombed, food imports were cut off, and the oceans were left polluted. Locals were left bewildered about why their traditional cultivation methods were not effective anymore.

6. Kathleen Drew and Nori

While things were looking hopeless for Nori in Japan, one woman was engrossed in studying mysterious algae on the shores of Manchester, England. Her name was Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker. Things were not easy for Kathleen either. She had recently been fired for marrying, and the university she worked for did not take married women.

Working as an unpaid researcher, Dr. Drew-Baker happened to focus on Pooryphyria unbilicalis, which was, in other words, Nori. In her study, Kathleen Drew-Baker discovered the complex lifecycle of seaweed. When Japanese scientists found her work, they developed and applied artificial seeding growing techniques for seaweed, bringing Nori back to life once again.

7. The Mother of the Seas Festival

Kathleen Drew-Baker never saw Japan, and she never truly realized what she had accomplished. However, the discovery she made in England completely changed the way seaweed was farmed in Japan. Without knowing, she had launched a billion-dollar industry that fed countless families throughout Asia.

The Japanese would never forget Kathleen—her work revived a part of their culture and livelihood. On April 15, 1963, a statue of Kathleen Baker was erected at the Sumiyoshi shrine in Uto City in Kumamoto, Japan. To this day, the Japanese revere this English lady as “The Mother of the Seas” and celebrate her research each year on April 14.

8. Competition

At the turn of the 21st century, Japan was no longer the only country that produced Nori. Neighboring countries Korea and China were also thriving in the seaweed industry, and Japan faced increased competition. Competitive prices posed a problem for Japan, but the country continues to be one of the top contributors of seaweed in the world.

9. Nori Enters the US

Although Nori was common in East Asia, Nori was heard of in the western world much later. The imported, dry sheets of Nori became popular in the United States only in the 1960s, mostly found only in Asian-American grocery stores. The rise of Japanese restaurants and sushi bars in the 1970s also increased Nori imports.

10. The Macrobiotic Movement and Nori

One of the things that made seaweed like Nori famous was the macrobiotic movement. George Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher, developed the macrobiotic diet in the 1920s. He believed that eating a simple, healthy diet was the way to live in harmony with nature.

Many people joined the movement and adopted a vegan diet, avoiding meats and dairy products. As a result, ocean-farmed greens, like Nori, became prevalent in the Western world.

11. Modern Nori Farms

Nori agriculture has come a long way and developed into an advanced form of aquaculture. Modern Nori farming is a highly mechanized process where seeded nets from onshore tanks are taken out to sea when ready. These marine plants grow in controlled seawater on nets suspended at the water surface. Once they mature at around 50 days, they are harvested and transported to factories. There, they are washed, crushed, molded into sheets, and finally dried.

12. A Thriving Industry

The commercial seaweed industry is booming. Annually constituting a billion-dollar industry, Nori culture has become one of the largest marine fisheries in Japan. In fact, over 600 sq. km. of Japanese ocean waters are dedicated to Nori production, producing thousands of tons every year! Almost all of that comes from Japan, China, and Korea, and Nori is one of the most demanded seaweeds. 

13. Largest Sushi Mosaic

Sushi is probably the food where you first encountered Nori. On September 18, 2016, four chefs led by Leonardo Figueroa created the world’s largest Sushi mosaic in a football stadium in Norway. To set this world record, two hundred liters of rice vinegar, 480 kilograms of cucumber, and 10 kg of chives were needed.

14. Most Expensive Sushi

The soul mate of Nori, Sushi, is always prized and quite expensive. But one of the world’s most costly sushi came at a staggering price of about $2K! Well, it was covered in gold and diamonds – so why wouldn’t it be so expensive?

15. One of the Longest Sushi

One of the world’s longest Sushi measured 2,844.61 m (9,332 ft 8 in)! Of course, it was the Japanese who accomplished this incredible feat on November 20, 2016.

16. Most Norimaki Made in Two Minutes

The insane world records don’t stop here! Swedish Joakim Lundblad made 12 norimaki in two minutes, setting a record on November 25, 2001.

17. Largest Onigiri Made

Onigiri is a rice ball wrapped up in a Nori sheet. In 1988, Japan made the largest onigiri, which weighed 600 kg (1,322 lb 12 oz)! 

18. Uramaki: The Inside-Out Sushi

The story of Uramaki goes back to the 1960s in Little Tokyo in LA. Uramaki was a Western version of Sushi, where the seaweed was hidden inside the rice because the Westerns were too cool for dried seaweed. 

19. British Laver, Japanese Nori

Laver and Nori are both from the genus Porphyra. Nori was consumed as a standard sea plant in Wales for centuries. They just called it by the name Laver.

20. Different Ways Nori Is Eaten In Japan

Most Americans encounter Nori exclusively on fancy dining-out occasions. However, the Japanese use this weed to create a variety of dishes. Besides, Nori is also used to flavor everything from soups to fried rice to fish to ramen and spaghetti.

Nori has come a long way, and it still has a long way to go. As more and more people realize the importance and value of Nori, the seaweed will become more and more eaten and known throughout the globe. Now that you know the history of Nori, it’s time to grab some and celebrate!

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This article was co-authored by our team of writers and editors who share one thing in common: their passion for food and drinks!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco works as a New York-based editor at Foodrinke, driven by his lifelong love for food. His culinary journey began in childhood, as he eagerly assisted his mother with her local sandwich and bakery business, relishing every opportunity to sample her creations. Known among family and friends as an easy eater, JC has a particular affinity for Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Peruvian cuisine. At Foodrinke, he channels his passion for food into his work, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with readers.