The Best Japanese Snack Of All

Behold: the Doritos of the Far East

There aren't enough suitcases in the world to fit all the delicious things worth schlepping back from Japan and its remarkable gastronomic culture: 7-Elevens that serve lunch-stuffs people go out of their way to attain, department store food halls stocked with green tea pastries and vivid bento boxes, processional kaiseki meals with immaculate tabletop pieces, each a different shape and size.

But if you're short on space and dead set on bringing home some sort of food souvenir, you can do no better than otsumami nori, crunchy dried seaweed, in the umami-rich flavor of sea urchin.

No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a relaxed afternoon in Nihonbashi, a neighborhood known for its vast array of cooking and pantry supplies. There's a shop peddling every variety of shaved bonito flake, another selling an array of chef's knives, another specializing in sencha green tea. One of the best, as I learned from local food writer and tour guide Yukari Sakamoto, is Yamamoto Noriten, a veritable temple to nori that's been around since 1849.

Today, Yamamoto Noriten is stuffed to the gills with nori sushi-making kits; chopped nori that's been mixed with soy sauce, mirin and sugar to form a spread; flaked nori meant to be sprinkled over rice; and cylindrical Pringles-like tins of nori "chips" in flavors like sour plum, wasabi and sesame; yuzu and honey; and, of course, the aforementioned uni. And although plenty of U.S. supermarkets, including Trader Joe's and Fairway, sell nori, none do so with Yamamoto Noriten's breadth, variety and artistry: Those stunning, high-contrast tins are collectors' items, primed to be repurposed as change jars or vases once their contents disappear.

Uni otsumami nori has a sharp crunch—just the sort of snap sushi lovers look for in a properly made temaki, or hand roll. But that's only part of the reason it's so satisfying. With finely ground uni granules (made from sea urchin, starch, sake cake, salt, sugar, egg yolk and pork grease) that evenly cover the surface of each piece of nori, the propensity to melt in your mouth and the serious dose of umami, the treat shares attributes with an unlikely pal: Doritos, a snack science has shown to be one of the most addictive on the planet. 

Uni otsumami nori also makes for a solid travel companion; it's the perfect bite while whizzing past a cloud-covered Mount Fuji on the Shinkansen, Japan's ultra-high-speed bullet train, or while idly frittering away a rainy afternoon at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, where there's not much else to do other than think and eat. It's also fabulous on planes; the boldness of the uni flavor cuts through even the most deadened of taste buds.

But the best time to enjoy uni otsumami nori is post-vacation. The few cans you've smuggled back will sit on your pantry next to far more humdrum staples, and serve as a visceral reminder that the Japanese attention to detail and pride in beautiful packaging spares nothing—not even dried seaweed and powdered fish.  

Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.