Kitchen Culture
tasty tidbits from the old-fashioned Japanese Kitchen

(sheets of laver)


The "Mother of the Sea"

Although the Japanese have cultivated nori for centuries it had been a risky business, subject to recurring crop failures for (at the time) inexplicable reasons. In the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-1957; above, right), a British scientist studying edible seaweeds discovered two things:

  • What had been thought to be separate species of algae were in reality different phases in the life-cycle of the same Porphyra species... and,
  • Nori spores need to spend time in empty seashells toward the beginning of their life cycle in order to thrive and propagate (Indeed, the immediate cause of crop failure in post-war Japan, was the lack of old shells in the aquatic farms).

After Dr. Drew-Baker’s studies were published in 1949 in Nature (a venerable scientific journal dating back to 1869), this information made its way half way around the world to Japan. There, this knowledge was applied to nori farming – and positively revolutionized the industry.

Ironically, Dr. Drew-Baker never visited Japan, and never knew how important her discoveries were to the Japanese. Yet, the Japanese call Dr. Drew-Baker Umi no Haha ("Mother of the Sea") and honor her every year in a ceremony in Uto on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.

BBC Radio 4’s Quentin Cooper attended this year (2015) and broadcast this show: To listen in, click here.