Amoeba’s Lorica: The Unbearable Lightness of Hawaiian Sushi Wrapper

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba, as of this writing, has found no evidence that the Hawaiian Islands grow even a single tassel of rice, has found no evidence that Hawaiians, prior to European contact, knew of rice or any other grain. Yet, in today’s Hawai‘i, rice is a ubiquitous essential – a legacy of when the Hawaiian Islands were conquered by joined the United States of America as a Territory, and the Territory’s rulers (sugar and pineapple plantation owners) brought in persons of East Asian descent, mostly Japanese, to do the back-breaking, heat-stroke-inducing, slave-labor-compensated field work that native Hawaiians, sensibly, refused to do. And those persons brought with them the idea that rice is food, everything else is a condiment.

Such as is, for instance, the spam in spam musubi, a snack food found all over the islands, including 7-11 stores and similar providers of haute cuisine. Rice, and seaweed paper (nori) to bind it, adapted from the Japanese culinary art of sushi – wrapped around a slice of spam, which arose from the lowest, hottest levels of American processed-food hell. The treatment of the spam as a condiment to the rice has probably prevented the deaths en masse of spam musubi consumers.

Unlike rice, or the pork from which spam is allegedly made, the original Hawaiians did have the raw seaweed needed to make the seaweed paper, also known as ‘sushi wrapper’. The seaweed has several Hawaiian names, the most widely known of which (at least, to YFNA) is limu pahe‘e (“seaweed, slippery”), and it is considered a rare delicacy.

Rare – because, like its cousins in Japan, China, and Korea from which commercial nori is made, it only appears in certain places, and during certain times of the year.

The “certain places” are on the ocean shoreline, where rocks meet surf – and the limu pahe‘e lives only where the surf reaches highest. In the picture at left (click on it to make it bigger), the light brown stains on the tops of the black lava rocks are where the limu pahe‘e are growing, higher above the water line than the green (limu palahalaha), golden (limu aki‘aki), or pink (coralline red algae) seaweeds.

Up close, the light brown limu pahe‘e mass resolves into clusters of paper-thin sheets, brown at the edges but dull red at their bases, that are lying together and, at low tide, are plastered tightly to the rocks. To make sushi wrapper, the seaweeds are harvested, washed in fresh water, put into a chopper, and the resulting slurry dried on mats to form thin sheets. Where nori is a commercial crop, as in Japan, the algae are grown on ropes or nets, which, during harvest time, are far easier on the knuckles than Hawaiian lava.

The “certain time” is winter and spring in the Hawaiian Islands, as it is in Japan. At favorable places, and during ‘good’ years (more on this anon), YFNA has started seeing limu pahe‘e in December or early January. By June, it is gone. Where? Ah …

Because, y’see, having places where rocks meet surf during the weeks after Christmas is not enough to be sure you’re going to get a limu pahe‘e harvest. Long stretches of Hawaiian coast, which look just like any other long stretches of Hawaiian coast, never get any limu pahe‘e. And even where the slippery seaweed (and they mean business with that name; incautiously stepping on a wet patch is sure to grab your attention, along with several inches of skin) regularly occurs, it’s a good thing the weather in Hawai‘i is so benign, because if you place bets in strip poker on when the limu will appear, and how big the crop will be, in any particular year, you’ll soon wind up naked. Not for nothing did the Japanese call their nori, which they’d been rearing for a thousand years, “gambler’s grass”. By growers who regularly lost their shirts.

Until … wait for it … the scientists showed up. Yeah, Lamar. Them. In this case, her. And started asking questions. Beginning with … where the hell does this stuff go during the summer? British seaweed scientist (the $5 word is “phycologist”, from the Greek word phykos meaning “seaweed” – and no, we can’t analyze your neuroses) Dr. Kathleen Drew asked, and got a bizarro answer.

The thin flat sheets of limu pahe‘e and all its cousins produce little spores from the edges of the sheets. When these start to grow, they form, not little blades, but little threads. Threads too small to see without a good microscope. Those threads grow innot on, in … pieces of chalk – things like clam shells, coral, limestone rocks. Then, when winter comes, these threads make spores of their own, which float to the surface of the sea, get thrown by the surf onto the high rocks, and grow to make thin sheets.

And you thought “transformers” was a Saturday morning cartoon selling toys.

It so happens that scientists with really good microscopes had found these threads half a century before Drew worked on them. But because they looked so different from the seaweeds that get turned into sushi wrapper, these scientists thought the threads belonged to a new species, different from the sushi wrapper species. Different, on the order of cats – or moose, or snakes – being different from dogs. When Kathleen Drew found out that the threads and the sheets belonged to the same species – 50 years before DNA testing, hell, five years before DNA was even “discovered” – well, this was a ‘rock the world’ kind of thing.

And Kathleen Drew published the findings of her work and moved on with her life.

Meanwhile, scientists in Japan were facing a total collapse of nori cultivation and were at wit’s end what to do about it. Until one of them read Drew’s paper, and spread the news. That paper not only explained why nori farming was collapsing, it showed how to fix it. Within a few years, nori farmers were rearing the threads in oyster shells in clean greenhouses, rather than relying on increasingly polluted and silted natural shell beds for nori seed stock. And nori cultivation transitioned from a chancy craft to the billion-dollar agricultural industry that it is today.

A dozen years after the publication of her paper, and six years after she died, a key nori growers community near Osaka, Japan, erected a statue in Kathleen Drew’s memory, and on 14 April every year since, there has been a “Drew” festival in her honor. In this way, Drew’s profound scientific achievement has saved, yea created, an industry, earned her lasting, spread-eagle praise and reverence, even a memorial in stone … and not, so far as YFNA can tell, a single Yen for either herself or her university.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba can hear the university administrators screaming, from half a world and half a century away. Some of whom had probably just read a report on how the university lost a major donor because a Proxmire clone had ripped it for wasting taxpayer pounds sterling on research “On seaweeds?? By a woman?!?

One of the things that Japanese scientists had to do to transform Drew’s discovery into sound agricultural practice was to figure out when the threads made the spores that turned into the thin sheets that yield nori. It turned out that temperature and daylength were both important. The cold and short days of winter in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere together provided the trigger that caused the threads, sitting in their oyster shells, to give up their spores and sustain the farm.

This concept doesn’t work so well in Hawai‘i, where the seasonal variations in air temperature, seawater temperature, and daylength are far less than in Japan, the home of commercial nori. Laboratory experiments that have tried to show daylength and temperature effects on the thread stages of limu pahe‘e have, so far, failed miserably.

Over the past three years at the Wawaloli Beach Park, a limu pahe‘e site near where YFNA works (the limu pahe‘e pictures near the top of the page were taken there), he has noticed major variations in when populations start appearing and how robust they are. This year (2017), there were no ‘slippery seaweeds’ on the beach until mid-February (way late) – and this seemed to coincide with the late start of the winter surf season, when big waves generated from storms in the western and central North Pacific Ocean start arriving in Hawai‘i. Six weeks later, after a nearly constant run of high surf, the rocks are well covered. Which they weren’t in 2016, a low surf year.

What’s more, no one really knows whether limu pahe‘e is one species or more than one, and whether any of those species are found anywhere else in the world. At Wawaloli Beach Park, it appears that two species are present in ‘good’ years, but only one in ‘poor’ years, and that both of them may be unique to Hawai‘i, maybe even unique to Hawai‘i Island itself.

All YFNA has to do is hit a big lottery so he can fund the studies to find these things out.

Grant agency: “You wish to blow $30,000 a year (double that for overhead charges) in taxpayer monies to do work on seaweeds?!? When we don’t have 5¢ on the dollar for studies that we do value? What the hell kind of a fool do you take us for??”

University: “Who the hell do you think you are, asking us to support your application for a measly $60,000 a year in grant funding?!? Anything less than a $million is a waste of our time. And on seaweeds?? How do you expect us to sell that to the big donors?!? Go away!”

Society: “What’s the matter, wuss? You’ve forgotten that, thanks to laws and culture against nepotism, your darling Kathleen Drew didn’t get paid for her efforts? You’ve forgotten that the most famous 20th-century scientist in your field worked as an accountant and did his science in his spare time? You’ve forgotten that ‘professional scientist’ wasn’t even a thing before the 20th century? You want to do this sciency stuff, make your own time and your own money for it, as God intended. And if you don’t got ’em, that’s your fault. Get a job, and leave us alone!

Perhaps in the lightness of a unique event in a unique life to come, someone with interest and wherewithal will see, and study, and solve.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is moving on.

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2 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: The Unbearable Lightness of Hawaiian Sushi Wrapper

  1. Nathalie Hoke says:

    Wow. This is very, very interesting. Pure research should be valued. One never knows what might come from it.

    • Amoeba says:

      Thank you. And, I agree. But obviously I’m motivated by self-interest, and therefore my opinions, since they are not backed by an immense personal fortune, are null and void.

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