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title The real root

April 15, 2002 Issue Full Text

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 thing.

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."

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