Through the eyes of Mr. Shinjaku: The Art of Nori Grading
Introduction to Nori Grading
When you think of Nori (dried seaweed sheets), you think of sushi, perhaps that one sushi restaurant in your neighbourhood, or even a convenience store onigiri, if you live in Japan. As a lay consumer, when you eat an onigiri, or sushi, you tend to focus on the guzai or the contents of what’s wrapped in your seaweed and rice. But the nori plays a big role in adding umami flavours, as well as an efficient way to keep all the ingredients in one place.
Once you take a sneak peek into trying to understand nori a little bit better, there is an entire world to explore, starting from nori production, auctioning, grading, and manufacturing, before it touches your plate.
Nori grading is a process to determine the quality and value of the product. As a lay consumer, when you eat an onigiri, or sushi, there is a key process of grading that takes place to determine where the nori goes.
Today we will be talking to Mr. Shinjaku from Mikuniya. He is the key procurement lead at Mikuniya and has been there for over 2 decades.
The Face behind Mikuniya Grading
As you will see from the work that goes into Nori grading, it is an art form. Only the most refined pallet can distinguish what is considered to be the highest grade in Nori. and the pallet that Mikuniya relies on is that of Mr. Shinjaku.
He has been at Mikuniya for almost 3 decades. He first started out as a sales associate and rose in ranks to become the head of the manufacturing department. What makes Mikuniya manufacturing unique is that all their sourcing and procuring are done by the manufacturing department. Therefore the quality of the product can be controlled right from procuring the ingredients.
Mr. Shinjaku says, “I have always been interested in food, and that is what got me in the door of Mikuniya. Spent the first couple of years in sales, while also supporting the procurement process. I had a bidding card under my name, which got me access to many of the auction spaces in Japan. That is where I got to make acquaintances with the producers, and learn about how the nori is made. I also learned how different nori can taste depending on where the nori is made, and how it is grown. Over time, listening to the producers, and their point of view of nori tasting, as well as talking to fellow procurers in the market, with Mikuniya, we have developed our brand and our uniquely Mikuniya flavour.
Mr. Shinjaku believes that building a relationship with the producers is important. Without that Mikuniya won’t be where it is today.
Some of his happiest moments in the business is when the kaitsuke (procurement process) goes well, and the consumers enjoy the products that we have procured. The key to good procurement is how much information you can get about the quality and status of seaweed of the year before the procurement season (which takes place from November to February annually).
“The challenge with procuring nori is that every year it is a different game. There are so many variables at play, all focused on the winter season. Some variables are weather, the temperature of the waters, the timing for netting and sporing of the seaweed, and how the nori is maintained while at sea. That is why getting enough information beforehand about how things are made gives you clues as to who’s nori to look out for when going into the auction hall.”
Our conversation ended by talking about his favourite Mikuniya Nori.
“My favourite product is the Aomaze nori (Mixed green-black nori). The rich flavours of the Aonori provide a punch of umami, and can be eaten both as a snack as well as in an onigiri. It can seamlessly fit into your household.”
What struck me from my conversation with Mr Shinjaku, is that of course, he has almost 30 years of experience in this industry, but he has a passion for the people behind the scenes. He cares about the producers who want to produce high-quality produce, and is open to learning new ways of understanding Nori. That is what makes Mr Shinjaku special. And because of that, it can be seen in the quality of Nori that Mikuniya procures.
What to look out for when buying Nori.
According to Mr Shinjaku, there are two steps in grading nori. The first is to identify the visual qualities. Some of the qualities observed are colour, shimmer, and texture. Then comes tasting, where you then go on to identify flavour, smell, hagire (crispiness), kuchidoke (melting texture in your mouth). An amalgamated assessment of all these varying qualities determines the grade of the product. Like a sommelier mastering wine, it takes a while to understand the complexities of the flavour and texture of Nori. Shinjaku-san took over 20 years to get to where he is today.
Despite the long journey in nori mastering, there are key factors that we can look into, to get a sense of Shinjaku-san’s world. These will bring us one step closer to being a master nori taster.
The three key visual qualities to look out for in the nori are colour, shimmer, and texture. In other words:
- How dark is the nori?
- Does the sheet shimmer?
- How does the nori feel in your hands?
The Darker the nori, Richer the taste.
If the colour of the sheet of nori is dark black, it is considered to be of high quality. However, the challenge in the production process is to balance a deep dark green hue with umami flavours.
The deep dark colour comes from the nori seaweed growing below the surface of the water, using only the refracting light to photosynthesise. The more efficient photosynthesis is, the lighter the green in the algae, which results in a higher umami content. Therefore the producers of nori have to make calculated decisions as to how long the seaweed stays in the water, and how long the seaweed gets direct sunlight in order to balance the deep colour, with a high flavour palette.
What makes the colouring of nori interesting is the dichotomy behind colour and flavour. Therefore the producers and the judgement of when to raise the seaweed nets determines how deep the flavour can be. So the artisans who can master both colour and flavour are considered to make high-quality nori.
Shimmer and Texture
The sound and the shimmer defines everything
The shimmer of the nori is how the deep blackish green colour glistens in the sunlight. This is determined by how the high-quality nori is dried in the sunlight. If the conditions are good, there is a perfect glisten to the sheets.
This is then coupled with a crispy texture. If the sheets can fold easily, it is considered to be of higher quality.
After a thorough observation of these three qualities, Mr Shinjaku then proceeds to delve into the Taste. The taste is a little more complex to decipher because of the 4 variables to account for; Flavour, Smell, Hagire (crispiness) and Kuchidoke (Meltiness).
Flavour is one of the most important features of nori. With more photosynthesis, the umami tones in the nori increase. What that means is, if you take a bite of the nori, you get a mouthful of flavour just bursting in your mouth. The bland, lower quality nori would feel like eating a chewy piece of paper without anything interesting happening to the senses.
The next factor to consider is the smell. Not the smell of the nori sheets themselves, but the odours that are unlocked when you bite into the nori sheets. The deep smell of the nori tends to linger for longer in a high-quality nori, compared to that of lower grade nori. A point of advice is to note how the flavours are unlocked in your mouth and linger with each bite of the nori.
Hagire is how crispy the nori breaks in your mouth. Low grade tends to be chewier. This has to do with both the way the nori is processed as well as the drying conditions that the nori is exposed to. In Japanese we describe a crispy texture that takes some time to break into two as “Paritto”, and a much more short and crispy break would be called “Sakutto”
Last but not least is Kuchidoke, which is what describes how the nori melts in your mouth. Generally, the nori with a hagire that is Paritto, is generally considered to be chewy and takes a while to melt in your mouth. Whereas if the hagire has a Sakutto sensation, then in general the nori melts in your mouth immediately without leaving any chewy or gummy feeling in your mouth. This sakutto type of nori that melts in your mouth quickly is considered to be of high quality.
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Describing the different elements to look out for might sound alien to you just from reading this. That is until you try and compare the taste yourself. Depending on the grade, the culinary experience you get can change immensely, and the way to enjoy Japanese sushi can be elevated into a culinary experience.
The nori that you find at Mikuniya as well specialised in trying to find the best of the best that balances the 7 factors (colour, shimmer, texture, flavour, smell, hagire, kuchidoke). When you think in line with Mikuniya products, Choutokusen is considered to be the highest of the grades that you can find in the auction houses across Japan. Knowing that Shinjaku-san handpicked these based on his accumulated knowledge spanned over 3 decades. In other words, you can trust his pallet. Your sushi made at home, or in your restaurant can’t go wrong if he is choosing the Noris.
If you have any more questions for Mr Shinjaku, feel free to email us from the Medium page platform! He will be happy to entertain questions! And we might just come up with another post.