A B.C. firm masters the secrets of the temperamental, elusive wasabi plant
by Colby Cosh
SUSHI and sashimi took about 80 years longer
than Chinese food to conquer the Canadian palate, and there will probably
always be many people whose reaction to these culinary terms is "Raw fish!
Aieee!" But even on the seafood-shy prairies, Japanese restaurants have
become abundant in just the last five years. One of the great delights of
Japanese food is the condiment wasabi, the soft, gummy little burst of
pungent flavour that seems almost to induce a neurological tingle upon
eating. Or so sushi fans might think. In fact, the wasabi on your plate is
almost certainly a sham.
Real wasabi comes from the green root-like rhizome of Wasabia
japonica, a plant that grows only in a few mountain streams in Japan.
Even in Japan, true wasabi is hard to find. In North America, it is
positively unknown. The "wasabi" served here is an imitation, a paste made
from horseradish powder and mustard. But a B.C. company, Pacific Coast
Wasabi (PCW) Ltd., wants to give you a chance at tasting the real
In 1987, a UBC botanist named Brian Oates found out about the Great
Wasabi Scam and wondered what would be necessary to grow true wasabi
commercially outside its native environment. He discovered that only a few
had succeeded in finding similar conditions, mostly in the Pacific
Northwest. It took him years just to obtain seeds, and several more to
develop a greenhouse process for the temperamental plant, which takes 18
months to grow to maturity. Only now is PCW bringing off its first big
crop--about 30,000 plants, averaging a hundred grams apiece--in a
one-and-a-half acre facility on the Lower Mainland.
With even the fake stuff priced at about $100 a pound, the potential
for an artificial wasabi-growing process is enormous. The company's
long-term goal is to expand to 10 acres, but it intends to sell its
process to a foreign manufacturer and let it handle mass production for
restaurants and stores. PCW's own plan is to follow up some interesting
data about the nutraceutical value of wasabi.
"Like ginseng and echinacea, wasabi shows signs of biomedical
benefits," says Steven Archer, a partner with Dr. Oates in PCW. "In 2000,
at a chemistry conference in Hawaii, a Japanese scientist presented
evidence that isothiocyanate, which is the active ingredient in the
condiment, can prevent tooth decay." The company is also exploring its
potential for preventing breast cancer and acting as an antifungal agent
for fish farms. (So far, however, they have no intention of pursuing a
scheme, once put forward by the Japanese wasabi growers, of developing a
wasabi wood preservative.)
In the meantime, PCW is sounding out high-end produce markets and tony
restaurants. Their first client was obvious: the Banff Springs Hotel in
Banff National Park, so beloved of Japanese tourists. When the
post-September 11 collapse of tourist traffic forced the temporary closure
of the sushi bar at the hotel, domestic visitors were left as the
beneficiaries, savouring real wasabi with Alberta-beef carpaccio and
mashed potatoes at the Banffshire.
How will you know when your favourite Japanese restaurant starts
serving the real deal? "One of the easiest ways to tell if you're eating
wasabi is that the isothiocyanate dissipates quickly," says Mr. Archer. "A
fresh lump on your plate will lose most of its heat within fifteen
minutes. A restaurant that serves real wasabi should have a waiter coming
to your table occasionally to freshen you up."