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If you google wasabi, the first thing that will probably pop up is a wikipedia article stating how hard it is to cultivate, which makes it expensive, and rare to find real wasabi outside of Japan. For this reason (and the fact I’m now obsessed with anything Japanese after spending part of our honeymoon there) it was really exciting to attend a recent event at a successful wasabi farm IN THE UK. The Wasabi Company invited myself, fellow bloggers and local chefs to an event at their farm in Hampshire to sample some amazing produce containing wasabi, and other traditional Japanese cuisine.

wasabi rhizome

 

Who are The Wasabi Company?

wasabi leaves

The Wasabi Company is the first commercial wasabi farm in the UK. The site we visited was previously used for growing watercress, but was a little too small and the ground too soft, so they were looking into other things they could do with it. This is when a Japanese chef who happened to be a friend of theirs suggested growing wasabi, as the conditions needed were similar. It all went from there, and three years on they’ve grown from strength to strength with lots of demand from top restaurants in the UK wanting to use their UK grown produce.

As well as having a tour of the beds to see where the magic happens- quite literally. The event was far more educational that I could have imagined, I loved it! Here’s a few things I bet you didn’t know about wasabi…

wasabi beds

Why is wasabi so hard to grow?

Wasabi is a bit of a picky plant, deemed the most difficult plant to grow commercially. It is usually found growing along stream beds in the mountainous regions of Japan, meaning it likes a lot of water, shade, is specific about the temperature it likes to grow in, and likes some humidity, but can’t handle too much. Add to that the fact it takes 2 years to reach maturity, you can understand why it would be difficult to cultivate commercially, outside the areas it has naturally grown in for thousands of years.

So how did they manage it? Well the farm is located on a confined aquifer, which to me and you (non geologists) means that the underground layers are such, that water can permeate through and be collected (like in a well or spring). This can then be directed and run through the beds to simulate similar conditions to that of growing near a stream. It also means that as the water is collected naturally from the ground, the temperature remains a fairly constant 11 degrees Celsius, again perfect for the wasabi. It also has the benefits of being a mineral rich water supply, that naturally drains out to the local rivers and streams, this means no pesticides can be used as it would affect the local wildlife. Another added difficulty to growing the wasabi, but also a bonus for the conscious buyers and eaters! They also need to use shade netting to keep the wasabi plants happy at around 60% shade, as well as be patient for the matured crop. All this combined has created the UK’s first commercially grown wasabi.

grow wasabi

Why is that such a big deal? well I’ll let you into a secret that unless you’ve eaten it in Japan, whatever wasabi you’ve tried probably isn’t wasabi, or contains such a teeny tiny amount it may as well not be. Most wasabi products are actually substituted with horseradish and mustard. So having the real deal being grown in the Dorset and Hampshire farms, is certainly a good thing for Japanese cuisine in the UK.

The type of wasabi we saw being grown in the farms was the higher end ‘sawa wasabi’. This means it is grown near a fresh oxygen rich water supply, as opposed to in normal soil (Oka wasabi).

Why does wasabi taste hot?

Wasabi is a different kind of heat to chillies as rather than stimulating the mouth, it stimulates the nasal passages, so when you eat it you experience a heat sensation at the front of your mouth and up through your nose. This is the same kind of taste or heat as horseradish and mustard. The difference being that wasabi is milder and more delicate in comparison. This is another reason why horse raddish is often used instead of wasabi as not only is it easier to grow, but is also more pungent making it easier to harness its flavour.

The hot taste of wasabi is actually caused by a chemical reaction which occurs when you break the plant cell walls, this is done when you macerate the rhizome/stem (ie grind it with the special grater). This means that the taste of wasabi, like any chemical reaction, has a timescale; it peaks after a few minutes and fades after 10-15 minutes, so there’s a window in which you get the best flavour. If you were to just cut off a piece of wasabi rhizome and chew and eat it you wouldn’t get the same flavour as if you grind it and wait a minute or so. It also means that it’s a particular skill to harvest the flavour. In comparison, the heat you get from chillies comes from the chemical capsaicin, which is oil/wax based and a chemical in itself rather than a reaction, so it’s heat isn’t so short-lived.

wasabi rhizome

You can also eat every single part of the wasabi plant, from the roots to the flowers. They all have a slight peppery heat, but the most pungent flavour is held in the rhizome/thickened stem.

whole wasabi plant

wasabi flower

So how do you harness the wasabi flavour?

This is more tricky than you would have thought because of that brief window of flavour. The way they capture it is to essentially freeze dry it. While we were talking to various suppliers and producers who used it, there seemed to be three main ways to best capture the flavour from the grated rhizome;

  1. Have it fresh at the table – This is what you should expect to see at high end Japanese restaurants. The simplest and best way to get the flavour is simply to grate it fresh at the table and serve, so you get the impact of the heat straight away.
  2. Grate a batch, spread it thinly and freeze it quickly! – We were given a rhizome to take home and this was the advice given for us to use it at home, or even in some restaurants. If you freeze it quickly it will halt the reaction and keep the flavour, and can even last up to a year!
  3. Freeze dried wasabi powder – Much like the wasabi pastes you see, this is the commercial freeze dried grated rhizomes as a powder so you can make your own paste. The major difference is The Wasabi Company powder contains 20% wasabi, which is more than any other wasabi paste/powder available currently.

They include advice about how to prepare your wasabi on their website.

Health benefits

Without getting too technical… Wasabi is a member of the brassica family. So that’s your broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages. We all know these are good for us. But wasabi in particular contains what they call long chain ITCs (isothiocyanates), unlike other brassicas. These are suggested to have great anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti- coagulant and chemoprotective properties. And have a long history of being used as part of Japanese herbal medicines.

Other Japanese produce at the event

It wasn’t all about wasabi! it was a celebration of all things Japanese, which after spending a week there for our honeymoon (and being desperate to return) I absolutely loved!

Highlights included:

 

Sake from Tengu sake (the photo shows a really good sparkling sake)

sake

Ponzu and Yuzu (high end Japanese vinegars available on The Wasabi Company website)

ponzu

Watercress and wasabi flavoured chocolate from Chococo

chococo

Watercress Gin and wasabi Vodka from twisted nose

wasabi vodka

Japanese Teas from the lovely comins tea house (who also do great black teas for my sage teamaker)

japanese tea

Traditional Japanese catering from Kyoto Kitchen

kyoto kitchen

 

Wasabi recipes

I don’t have any wasabi recipes as of yet myself. But I’ve done a bit of searching, and thanks to fellow blogger friends have some tasty ideas for how to use wasabi below.

Here is a recipe for  Japanese beef casserole with miso wasabi mash from Helen at Fuss Free Flavours. This actually includes the fresh wasabi from The Wasabi Company too!

wasabi mash

 

And a recipe from Ceri at Natural Kitchen Adventures for Tuna Steak with Rocket & Cucumber salad and Wasabi herbed Mayo

tuna wasabi

 

Here is a great twist on salmon en croute including wasabi from Nazima at Franglais Kitchen – Wasabi and chilli salmon en croute in an almond shortcrust pastry.

salmon en croute wasabi

 

And finally from Claire at Foodie Quine a recipe for a smoked salmon sushiwhich!

smoked salmon wasabi

 

 

 

 

About the Author Lisa

I'm Lisa and this is the Lovely Appetite blog. I’m always experimenting with recipes, hunting through cookbooks for inspiration or trying out new places to eat. Please browse the site and enjoy reading about my findings.

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