Seaweed Smarts: What Is Furikake?

When dining at a Japanese restaurant, you may have wondered what that "ground-up sushi stuff" on top of your rice is. Fact: It is ground-up sushi stuff, but its proper name is furikake, and once you get to know it, you may have trouble downing a bowl of rice without it.

The most basic recipe includes flaked dried seaweed (also known as nori), sesame seeds, salt and sugar. More elaborate versions exist for every palate and craving, but no matter what's in the shaker, it's really only meant to jazz up your short-grain rice. A bowl of perfectly cooked white rice is a staple of nearly every meal in Japan, and furikake is one of the only acceptable accoutrements (apologies to those who douse their sacred grain in soy sauce before consuming).

In addition to providing nutrition from the seaweed and sesame seeds, the umami and salt from added MSG and/or other savory components like dehydrated ground chicken, tiny shrimp, dried shiso leaves, matcha powder, bonito or pollack roe turns an ordinary starch into something much more satisfying. When furikake hits the steam of freshly cooked rice, the ensuing scent is intoxicating.

Now a trendy seasoning fueling everything from ramen and fried eggs to French fries and hot dogs topped with kewpie mayo and Asian slaw, furikake is more popular than ever. NYC-based chef Aliya Leekong loves sprinkling the stuff on top of rice but takes it one step further: She whips up a crunchy blend of buttery popcorn seasoned with her homemade furikake, soy sauce and senbei (assorted Japanese rice crackers) for a salty snack you won't be able to stop eating.