The History of Marine Algae in Japan
There are 21 different kinds of sea vegetables that are used in everyday cookery in Japan. In fact, six of them have been continuously used since the 700s BC.
In modern times, the average Japanese person eats 1.4 kg of marine algae per year. Beyond traditional sushi, the Japanese are the main consumers of seaweed as food.
Nori is one of the most important seaweeds in Japan. It is so important that the Taiho Code, Japan’s first written legal codex from the 8th Century, lists murasaki nori (“purple nori”) as an annual tribute tax payment option, along with seven other types of seaweed and 22 other marine products.
Nori was a luxury item, which made it quite important during annual gift giving at the middle and end of every year. In fact, the demand of purple nori outstripped supply until more advanced cultivation methods were developed in the period following World War II. Now Japan happily celebrates “Nori Day” annually on February 6.
Until the late 1970s, families prepared and consumed most nori in their households. People living in the coast had better chances to obtain fresh nori (or iwanori). They made nori salads and soups while also eating more processed forms of it such as sheets of nori, beer (tsumami), and other snacks.
However, the most common use of processed nori are sushi and onigiri (rice balls).
Temakizushi, which is sushi made by hand at home, is a popular food used mostly for small gatherings or parties.
Onigiri are the Japanese culture’s answer to sandwiches — they are common at outdoor events such as picnics, field-day events, and lunches.
Kombu is another popular seaweed. Various kinds of kombu find different uses in cooking. Kombu also plays an essential part in marriage ceremonies and New Year celebrations, as well as being a popular gift. After all these years, kombu has many avatars as well:
- Green kombu is boiled with meat, fish, and soups, and is also used as a vegetable or with boiled rice.
- Powdered kombu is employed in sauces and soups or is added to rice in the same way as curry is. These two forms, together with tea kombu, are also used for making a tea-like liquid.
- As if that was not enough, there is also a series of condiment products made of kombu.
Matsumo is a small brown alga used for preserving mushrooms. The mushrooms are first soaked in salt water and then packed in barrels. They place them in layers in the barrels, alternating with layers of salted matsumo to keep moistness out.
Another thing that is interesting is that, just like milk, some people can digest seaweed better than others.
In Japan, some genes are thought to have been acquired originally from marine microbes that were likely eaten with nori. This is quite an interesting science fact as it is the first clear-cut example of a gut microbe gaining a new biological niche (our bellies) by acquiring genes from an ingested bacterium (in nori). In a way, it is almost like Japanese people tamed seaweed and turned it into a part of their everyday lives.
The History of Marine Algae in Korea
Now, in Korea, seaweed has also been of cultural importance, not just as a food source.
Dry sea mustard, for instance, is prepared for the goddess of childbirth (and thus also for women who are about to give birth). Dried seaweed is also offered to the goddess with rice, water, and a thread.
Korean mothers actually drink sea mustard soup for four weeks after childbirth. High in calcium and iodine, sea mustard is believed to improve mothers’ milk and their overall bodies. For four weeks, people pray for the longevity of the baby and the health of the mother every day.
This means that in Korea seaweed is so important it is a literal divine and life-sustaining meal.
The History of Marine Algae in China
The history of seaweed use in China is one of the longest and most extensive of any country.
Herbal encyclopedias of the different Chinese dynasties, such as the Chinese herbals, the “Ben Cao,” and even coastal provincial and county records, bear documentation of medicinal and edible algal species.
The derivative of red algae, agar, is cut into small pieces in China. Treated with soy sauce, vinegar, and red pepper, it is eaten as a condiment.
The green algae, the sea lettuce or green laver are commonly eaten as a salad.
The History of Marine Algae in Europe
In some countries, locals were eating seaweed as far back into history as European historical sources can document, particularly in the North. Norway is probably the most famous example. In the Viking age, Norwegians consumed seaweed regularly.
In Ireland’s coastal communities of the West and North, people were also eating it at the same time as Vikings. Seaweed was considered a seasonal food product for household consumption, and it was also sold locally in accordance to its seasons.