The days when Western people saw seaweed eating as totally alien and gross are well and truly over. These days, nori seaweed is well known as the stuff you use to wrap sushi rolls. Yet the broader world of Japanese seaweed eating is still a little mysterious to most people, so I thought I would try to shed some light on the many ways seaweed can make your dinner better.
People say seaweed is good for you, and I’m sure that’s true. But there are much better reasons for eating it. What’s really important for you to know is how to use these delicious plants to enrich your table.
Because, make no mistake about it: in Japan, edible seaweed is about much more than just that strange, paper-like, black thing on the outside of sushi rolls we call nori. We use at least 6 types of seaweed in Japanese home cooking, each in a different way.
The fixation is woven right into our language. The word for rice – “gohan”- also means “meal”. “Asa” means morning, so to say “breakfast” you have to say “asa-gohan”: literally, it’s our “morning rice”. “Hiru” means “midday”, so lunch becomes “hiru-gohan”. And evening is “ban”, so you can guess what “ban-gohan” means.
Now, lets not fool ourselves: to the western palate, Japanese rice comes across as terribly bland. The standard recipe is completely plain. No spices, no salt, no flavorings, nothing. Just rice, water, heat and time. It certainly takes time and practice to learn to discern the subtle differences in taste and texture that set apart exceptional white rice from the merely ordinary kind.
It’s hard to think of a simpler dish, yet we Japanese obsess about it endlessly. At top-end Japanese department stores, you can easily find rice cookers that cost $1,000 or more. All children learn exactly how to cook white rice in elementary school. Journalists get sent out to cover the first rice harvest of the season because everyone knows that the early-harvest rice is just better than the rest. Government scientists research the question of harvest timing extensively.
Even the Emperor has to ritually plant and later harvest some rice each year to offer to the Sun Goddess; in fact, some scholars hypothesize that, in Ancient Times, the emperors got their start as rice shamans, rising to political power thanks to the belief that they had magical powers over the rice harvest. As one author explains:
The symbolic importance of rice is deeply rooted in the Japanese cosmology: rice as soul, rice as pure money, and ultimately, rice as self. During Edo era (1603-1867), rice was circulated as an intermediate, as money.
Even though the Japanese had the custom of eating rice since ancient times, only after the nineteenth century did rice became the national food staple. Therefore, rice has been valued as a special food associated with rituals. Rice harvest rituals, both among the folk and at the imperial court, have been a major cultural institution. The Japanese emperor originally was the shaman who celebrated rice harvest in ancient times. Harvest ritual celebrate cosmic rejuvenation through an exchange of their souls, that is, selves, as objectified in rice.
People believed that rice had mysterious super-natural powers. One example can be seen in an ancient custom; people shook rice in bamboo and let the dying person hear the sound at his deathbed. On mountainsides, people called rice “the Buddhist saint (Bosastu).” The word “offering (to the God),” osonae, itself used to refer to the rice cake prepared for ritual services. It means that the rice had been used as main servings for the formal rituals to God.
Rice is not a mere grain, rather a personified thing that has soul. People perceived a rice cropping to be closely connected to the super-natural, religious behavior, rather than an economic activity. Rice farmers had a notion of “ina-dama,” the soul of rice, and personified rice. Therefore even today, people believe that the soul of rice, which is called the God of the rice paddy, dwells in the last rice stubble. The person who reaped the last rice would bring it back home and hold a service. This custom is still practiced at the rice harvest rituals.
So you’ve been warned: this dish may be exceedingly simple, but it is not to be trifled with. Simple white rice is the cornerstone not just of our diet, but of our whole way of life.
And, now that I think of it, it’s not just at harvest time that rice is suffused with ritual. Making rice at home is full of little ritual gestures as well. In this post, I try to share some of them.