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Where Does Wasabi Come From?

If you’ve tried sushi or sashimi, you’ve no doubt tried some of the bright green paste that’s served up with it, accompanied by pink pickled ginger. But do you actually know where wasabi comes from? If you’ve guessed Japan, you may be right, but there’s more to wasabi than meets the eye.

The wasabia japonica plant

Genuine wasabi comes from grating the root of the wasabia japonica plant. The green paste that you’re served in your local Japanese restaurant is unlikely to be genuine wasabi. In fact, it’s estimated that only 5% of the wasabi served around the world actually comes from the pungent rhizome of the wasabi plant. The demand for this eye-watering relish is so high that even in Japan, most restaurants serve up horseradish mixture instead of the genuine plant. At best, you may get a little real wasabi mixed into the concoction, but you’re unlikely to get the real thing. And the reason for this is simple – most gardening experts say that wasabi is the most difficult plant in the world to grow for commercial use.

While the root of the plant is used to make wasabi, the leaves and stem are also edible and are often eaten either raw in salads, or by making them into pickles. They can also be fried into chips. It’s also believed that wasabi can be used as a medical aid, as it has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.

A potted history of wasabi

There’s a Japanese legend that tells us that way back in the tenth century the green root that we know as wasabi was discovered in a remote mountain village by a poor farmer. The farmer decided to grow it as a crop and introduced it to the local warlord, Tokagawa Ieyasu. The warlord, who was later to become Shogun, enjoyed wasabi so much that he declared it was a ‘treasure’ that could only be grown in the Shizuoka area of Japan.

According to Japanese history, wasabi has grown wild under the peaks of Mt. Heike, Mt. Mizuo and Mt. Bahun in the Kitano-Kyu area of Japan for hundreds of years. The local people were believed to have used the root to season slices of raw river trout and venison, and they used the stems and leaves of the wasabia japonica to create pickles.

The first documented proof of using wasabi to create commercial products tells us how Ichiroku Hashimoto first produced ‘Kitani-Kyo’ wasabi, which proved to be an immediate success. In fact, so much so that cultivation of wasabi spread throughout the Kitani-Kyo area. Although the growing techniques were primitive, it proved to be a very popular crop. Over the years, new technologies were developed which meant that the plant could be grown alongside mountain streams instead of having to grow it in water. This allowed the farmers to grow wasabi in greater quantities, known as Hatake-Wasabi, and the technique was used widely amongst wasabi farmers.

Fast forward a number of years, and a new method of cultivation was introduced which used normal fields. This meant that it took less time for the wasabi to grow, it was easier to control diseases and the cost of production dropped.

Since then, the cultivation of wasabi has spread to countries such as Taiwan, China, America, Canada, New Zealand and right here in Australia. However, despite its popularity, it still proves to be very tricky to grow as it requires a precise mixture of pure water and minerals – and the key to its success has remained a closely guarded secret. For this reason, the supplies of wasabi are still relatively limited and, with an increased demand for authentic wasabi japonica, the root has indeed become a ‘treasure’ and the prices charged reflect this demand.

So what are we actually eating?

When you add a smear of bright green paste to your sushi, you’re most likely adding a mixture of mustard and European horseradish, together with some green food colouring to give it its distinctive appearance.

How can you tell if you’re eating the real thing?

 

Genuine wasabi root has a more herbal taste than the mass produced horseradish alternative and, while it’s hot, it doesn’t leave you with a lingering, burning aftertaste. It also loses its flavour if you don’t eat it within 15 minutes of preparation. People who have eaten real wasabi say that it tastes smoother and cleaner and more like a plant. It’s also said that commercial ‘fake’ wasabi has a very distinctive spicy smell, while the real stuff is more mild and fragrant. So the next time you’re served up the bright green paste, see if you can tell whether it’s genuine wasabia japonica, or just a very bright imitation.

Japanese Wasabi production in Australia

As mentioned, the need for wasabia japonica to be grown in very specific cold climatic conditions makes it one of the world’s most difficult crops to grow. But one Australian company has been researching and perfecting the art of growing authentic Japanese wasabi for 12 years, and is now the largest producer of fresh wasabi in the southern hemisphere. Shima Wasabi use climate-controlled greenhouses and a unique hydroponic production system to produce premium-quality fresh wasabi all year round, which rivals the very best quality wasabi found in Japan. And despite being 100% pure authentic Japanese wasabi, it’s grown right on their farm in the pristine waters and climate of Tasmania.

In the hands of Australia’s leading chefs, this fresh wasabi is now used daily in a stunning array of dishes in over 60 of Australia’s top restaurants.

Shima Wasabi, which is proudly part of the Tasmanian Food Co, also produces concentrated dried wasabi spices for food manufacturers, which are used in a range of popular food products throughout Australia, Asia, North America and Europe.

They’ve recently launched Australia’s first 100% Pure Wasabi Powder for home use – so anyone can have the amazing taste and aroma of pure, authentic wasabi at home all year round!