What is that pale green stuff coming out of tubes or situated in tiny mounds next to sashimi? It’s got as much to do with real wasabi as going to a tanning salon has to do with a day at the beach. Still, you get the point from dabbing raw fish into it— it accentuates the flavors, provides contrast with texture, and gives hints of bitterness that play with the sweetness of the sashimi. But the wasabi we get here is horseradish dyed green. Horseradish has plenty of flavor and tastes good, but it’s not wasabi.
Wasabi is a carrot-shaped root vegetable grown in mountainous areas, requiring bountiful and pure water, and a long period of care before harvesting. Once it’s unearthed, the leaves can be steamed and eaten as a salad. The root, trimmed of its knobby exterior, is grated and once you taste it with fresh, raw fish, you’ll give up the tube. Fresh wasabi is a powerful sensory experience. It wakes up the nostrils, toys with receptors on the tongue, and brings out the best of the fish.
In late March, just as the cherry trees were blossoming, I was fortunate enough to visit Izu Peninsula in the prefecture of Shizuoka, Japan where, deep in the mountains, wasabi has been cultivated since 1740.
In the small remote valley, situated between rolling and forested hills, reached by a narrow one lane road the perfect growing conditions are found. Terraced hillsides, the sound and sight of rushing water spilling through small plots on the hillsides, and the variations of green everywhere were so exquisite —it was breathtaking. Of course, the cherry blossoms added to the mix. I felt as if I were in a painting. If Matisse had been Japanese, he could have conjured all this up.
I was greeted by Waturu Inoue, a gregarious, deeply informed, and passionate farmer. He handed me a pair of knee-high boots, and led me through the watery expanse.
Before picking the wasabi, he gave me a spellbinding lesson on its history and the importance it maintains for the economy and culture of the region.
Watura-san is a stocky, muscular, serious looking guy, and there’s no nonsense about him like most farmers I meet. When he sensed the depth of my interest in his work, he smiled frequently and began to speak in detail and at length.
“We are going to start selling wasabi to a couple of new restaurants opening in New York,” he said proudly. “The representatives were here this month.”
Why would a restaurant source a product nearly 7000 miles from its base?
The wasabi grown in Izu has unique characteristics.
“We use all natural spring water,” explained Watura-san, “Seventeen different water sources are used right here. The water affects the color, size, and taste of the 50 to 60 different wasabi species grown in this region.”
I’m amazed: 50 to 60 types of wasabi? Not exactly that stuff from the tube!
But that’s nothing compared to wasabi throughout Japan.