How picky are you when it comes to buying nori? Many think that all seaweeds are created equal. For recipes like sushi, chefs often spend much more time focusing on fish and other filling ingredients than they do on the nori itself. But like rice, nori is a foundational ingredient. As with temaki, nori is the first ingredient to touch a taster's tongue--in its own subtle way, it sets the stage for an exceptional tasting experience.
Not all seaweed is created equal. The best sushi chefs in the world know of nori's understated yet key role in creating a superior piece of sushi. In fact, in an exceptional piece of sushi, the nori is sometimes even more expensive than the fish itself! Connoisseurs of nori know that it can transform a recipe from mediocre to amazing.
Although countries like China and Korea also produce nori, the world's finest nori is produced in Ariake Bay, on the island of Kyūshū in Southern Japan. Called Ariake Nori, the nori cultivated in these nutrient-rich waters is highly prized and meticulously processed. Like tea, nori is harvested in "flushes," with higher quality nori being harvested earlier in the season. Location, water temperature, currents, and mineral content all play a role in giving nori its unique taste.
If you know what to look for, there are many markers of a premium piece of seaweed. First off, inspect your nori. Poor quality nori is often brownish or green in color. You might notice some areas being uneven-thicker or thinner-with a rough finish. You may even notice some larger holes and irregularities on a sheet. Lesser grades of seaweed are often dry, tasteless, and noticeably tougher than best quality seaweed.
A best quality nori is jet black in color and has an even, uniform thickness throughout. Premium nori has a subtle flavor and natural sweetness, with no noticeable off-flavors. This seaweed should be crisp out of the bag and yet it has a softness that melts in your mouth. Above all, you should taste lots of rich umami flavor, earthy and ocean-like at the same time.
Like wine, chocolate, cheese, and other artisan ingredients, nori deserves a chef's extra attention. Curious? Conduct a taste-comparison yourself! It's only after you've tasted best that you'll realize what you've been missing.