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Monday, 03 May 2010

In Search of Wasabi

Written by Scott Haas
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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.

In Search of Wasabi, visiting Izu Peninsula, prefecture of Shizuoka, Japan, wasabi cultivation, travel Izu Peninsula, travel Shizuoka, travel Japan, what is wasabi, Scott HaasI 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.

“There are 300 different species in the country,” he said.

The best stuff is expensive: upwards of $100 a pound.  Yes, it’s true, you don’t need much, but still that’s a lot of money for a green root.

The demand, as usual, dictates the price, but here, too, there are solid reasons for the expense.

“This region used to be the ideal area for growing the high-end wasabi, but in 1958 a typhoon destroyed the valley,” he explained.

So replanting had to occur and now, decades later, year-round, labor intensive harvests take place.  Wasabi takes 18 months to develop from seedling to fully grown.  That’s like putting wine in a barrel or cheese in a cave and waiting.  While waiting, there’s revenue from previous harvests, but a lot of that money is needed for the next harvest.  The plots are beautiful, but the work is extremely time-consuming.

Watura-san has a gruff, empathic voice as he talks about his livelihood.  He’s one of those people who really identifies with his work.

About 150 farmers grow wasabi in the region, 50 of them full time, but it wasn’t until General MacArthur introduced land reform after the Second World War that the growers owned the land.  Prior, they were essentially sharecroppers.

“He introduced democratic land reforms,” Watura-san said.

Those reforms completely changed the lives of the farmers and their children.  Now they felt entitled to lives where control of the product was in their hands.

In Search of Wasabi, visiting Izu Peninsula, prefecture of Shizuoka, Japan, wasabi cultivation, travel Izu Peninsula, travel Shizuoka, travel Japan, what is wasabi, Scott HaasLesson over, we troop up a small rise, open a fence, and immerse our boots in the cold, clear water.  Watura-san leans down and with both hands mimes how to pull up the root by its leaves without leaving it in the ground.

“Gently,” he said.  “Slowly”

I grab the leaves and wiggle the root and moments later I’m holding real wasabi.  We wash the dirt off and hold it up.

“It’s a good one,” he said.  “The knobbier, the better!”

©Scott Haas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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