Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor
Real Wasabi is an Oregon Farm Product
Most likely, you encountered wasabi for the first time as a little ball of paste next to a sushi roll; perhaps you were surprised when you tried it, and a delightful, fiery sensation shot up your sinuses and made your eyes water! If you’re like me, that first encounter was the start of a lifelong spicy love affair.
Chances are, though, unless you have dined in Japan, that the “wasabi” you’ve experienced is nothing more than a doppelgänger! Due to the particular environment required for wasabi to flourish, western sushi restaurants, much of the time, use normal horseradish root dyed green with food coloring. What a ruse!
What is wasabi?
Real Wasabi, Wasabia japonica, has been chronicled in Japan since at least the Asuka period (592 AD-710AD) and was revered as a medicinal plant. Cultivation began in the early Edo period (1600s), in Utogi, a ward of the Shizuoka prefecture. Modern use of wasabi as a condiment for sushi began in the early 1800s before the age of refrigeration; because of wasabi’s pungent scent and flavor, it was used to cover any “fishy” taste from less-than-fresh fish and to inhibit the growth of bacteria on highly perishable foods. As sushi made its way onto the plates of Japanese commoners, wasabi skyrocketed in popularity.
Fast forward to the 1960s, sushi bars are omnipresent in Japan, and Japanese culture is matriculating into US culture as post-World War 2 tensions begin to dissipate. Then in the 1980s, another spike in “Japanophilia” occurred in the US after the success of shows like Shōgun. In the 80s, sushi became synonymous with urban stylishness. Sushi Bars began to pop up all over the country, and words like “Sashimi” and “Nigiri” made their way into the American lexicon. As sushi gained popularity, as did demand for the ubiquitous condiments on every plate; neon pink petals of pickled ginger and neon green pearls of wasabi paste.
This presented a problem. Wasabi was notoriously fickle to grow, difficult and expensive to import, and was perceived to have a singular application in sushi. So, farmers did not see it as a cash crop. Horseradish was abundant and easy to grow and similar enough in effect that it became the obvious ersatz. Both Horseradish and Wasabi are in the family Brassicaceae, which also includes mustard. Although the heat was there, “western wasabi,” as green-dyed horseradish became to be known, was missing the nuance of freshly-grated wasabi.
Freshly-grated wasabi rhizomes have a complex vegetal flavor. With a more nuanced heat compared to the usual horseradish stand-in, this wasabi allows the flavor of the food beneath to shine — and that includes much more than just sushi. You can think of fresh wasabi as a universal seasoning that could go next to the salt, pepper, and vinegar on any dining room table. A generous dollop of fresh wasabi would elevate a nicely grilled New York steak to new heights, for example!
Authentic Wasabi at Kookoolan Farms
Authentic Japanese Wasabi may seem like a strange topic for a Kookoolan Farms blog post, so here’s the hook. We’ve been carrying sushi-grade seafood for years now. Many of you have been visibly intrigued by the idea of DIY-at-home sushi as you stand at our seafood freezer gazing at the goods. But, we all know it’s a huge hassle to have to visit multiple specialty stores to pull off a single meal.
Koorosh and Chrissie are both longtime fans of Japanese food and woodworking, which influenced the American Arts & Crafts movement. The substitution of colored horseradish for the real thing has strong analogies to the deliberate hijacking of other real foods such as beef and chicken, wild seafood, and honey. We feel a kinship with the founders of Oregon Wasabi Farm, whose origin story is not so different from Kookoolan Farms’ story. It’s 20 miles from Kookoolan Farms to sushi anything, so out here, we realized we needed to curate all these components so that we could create sushi in our own kitchen!
For decades, the limiter to the sushi industry’s growth was a worldwide shortage of wasabi, grown only in a very small area of Japan under very closely-guarded, secretive conditions. A local business, Oregon Wasabi Farm, has unlocked the secret of growing fresh wasabi here in Oregon! Much like the Willamette Valley is analogous to the wine-growing regions of Boudreaux, which allow Pinot Noir grapes to flourish here in Oregon; so, the Oregon Coast is equivalent to the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan and share similar ecology and latitude. Wasabi plants need a lot of water in fast-draining soil and are fairly photophobic, so the rainy and shady weather in the PNW is an ideal environment. In this climate, wasabi can be grown and harvested year-round, so having a local grower means that fresh wasabi is available every season!
Bringing locally-grown wasabi into the farmstore at Kookoolan Farms is part of our plan to complement our sashimi-grade seafood products with everything “Sushi”. We already have locally brewed Gluten-Free Yamasa Tamari (made in Salem, Oregon!), fresh pickled ginger slices from Classic Foods out of Portland, and our three varieties of Saké from our neighbor SakéOne brewery, just up Highway 47 in Forest Grove! A top-tier Sushi experience at home may sound like an impossible undertaking, but it’s easier than you think.
Fresh wasabi is sold as the root, or rhizome. Like many other roots (think carrot or potato), a fresh wasabi root will last a couple of months in the refrigerator. We will be carrying these rhizomes in 1/4 lb packages, a specialized super fine grater for making wasabi paste, a number of plant starters for your home garden, and as a powder.
Authentic wasabi powder is easy to use: mix 2 parts wasabi powder with 1 part water, and let rest ten minutes for full hydration. In practice, this means about 2 tsp powder with 1 tsp water, and then set the two blobs on two plates while you prep the rest of your DIY sushi meal! The aroma of real wasabi begins to fade after just 20 minutes or so, which is why real aficionados prefer to freshly grate the root just at the moment of use!
If you want to learn more about what wasabi products Kookoolan Farms is offering, check out our other blog post here!
Please feel welcome to call us at (503) 730-7535 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org — we're always happy to answer your questions.