Wasabi Down Under

Traditionally grown in secluded mountain streams in Japan, the prized, pungent rhizomes known as Wasabi have found a new home in Tasmania, Australia

2018-05-18 12:28:59 2018-10-01 09:12:39

It’s one of the most well-known and popular condiments in Japanese eateries the world over—a bright mustard-green paste with a spicy kick and pungent aroma, typically served alongside sushi and sashimi. Well, I’m sorry to break the news to you, but most of the “wasabi” served in take-away sushi packs and even Japanese restaurants is not real wasabi. It’s cheap horseradish, dressed up in green food colouring and served out of a tube. It doesn’t even derive from the wasabi plant. Why do restaurants do this? Because the real McCoy is rare and expensive, and is best served freshly grated as it loses its flavour after a mere 15 minutes.

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Upping Supply to meet Demand

“Once you’ve had the real thing, you can never go back,” says Esme Atkinson, production manager at Shima Wasabi in Tasmania, Australia. She’s completely confident of her assertion. And yes, Tasmania. Although wasabi is native to Japan, it found another happy home in Tasmania almost two decades ago. At first glance, Australia might seem like an unexpected place to attempt to grow wasabi, but Tasmania is blessed with myriad terrain types, and a cool climate with plenty of pristine water sources—a situation not hard to find on the beautifully green island—turns out to be an exact fit for the growth of the plant.

Wasabi grows best in a mild, cool climate, making Shima Wasabi, a secluded farm in Tasmania’s north-west, the perfect location to produce some of the world’s freshest specimens. Wasabi grown here tends to mature faster than those cultivated elsewhere. What differentiates Australian-grown wasabi from those grown in other countries is a particularly sweet, intense flavour profile that many renowned chefs rave about.

Wasabi, or the Japanese horseradish, is a rhizome of the Brassicaceae family. It’s therefore related to ordinary horseradish and mustard, but with a flavour that is distinct from its less finicky cousins. The plant is actually very difficult to cultivate commercially, even under ideal conditions in Japan. And as demand for real wasabi is high, and continuing to rise, Japan now relies on imports from Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand to bolster local supply.

Harvesting wasabi by hand at Shima Wasabi
Harvesting wasabi by hand at Shima Wasabi

Close-kept secrets

I meet Freya Griffin, Shima Wasabi’s Brand Manager, at Elizabeth Town Bakery. The bakery is the only landmark in the small, dairy farming district, which is located just under an hour’s drive to the west of Launceston. Together, we drive down many winding country roads, lined with fifty shades of greens and browns against a backdrop of rugged blue mountains in the distance. The roads are quiet; we see no other cars, and at some point along the route we pass by two men on horseback. Every few kilometres, we whizz past farms whose fields hold scatterings of various livestock, vineyards, and the occasional residential building. Finally, half an hour later, we pull up at the “secret location” of Shima Wasabi—the farm is deliberately hard to reach and its address is kept quiet for the purpose of protecting its biosecurity. These days, most commercial farms have biosecurity measures in place to protect their product and manage risks, such as the transfer of disease from other farms. Wasabi is particularly difficult to stabilise even in its optimal growing environment, and following a past season where the crop was destroyed by disease, strict policies have been implemented to ensure all precaution is taken.

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Greenhouse at Shima Wasabi

Comprising two greenhouses and a working station, Shima Wasabi is Australia’s largest commercial wasabi farm, with 10,000 wasabi plants currently growing. The establishment is developed around a unique hydroponic system utilising Tasmania’s natural, pure rainwater, and maintains a controlled environment in which to grow these finicky plants. The farm was started by founder Stephen Walsh fifteen years ago, who had a keen interest in horticulture and a profound understanding of the Tasmanian climate. Walsh, intrigued by wasabi’s sensitive growing capacity, started the business after creating a system to grow wasabi in Tasmania all year round, making the most of the natural environment and stabilising greenhouse technology.

Rows of wasabi plants line the interiors of the carefully climate-controlled greenhouses, reclining in a measured, continuous stream of naturally collected fresh rainwater. The amount and intensity of light, the temperature, and the levels of humidity within these specialised nurseries are all strictly monitored and regulated. The aim is to emulate the wasabi terraces up in the mountains of Japan (many traditional wasabi farms grow the plants in gravelly stream beds), and this Tasmanian farm has managed this exceptionally well. Shima Wasabi is operated by an intimate team of four, and Atkinson, who holds holds a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Plant Science at the University of Tasmania, is one of these. She has been running the farm for a number of years. It is with apparent relish that she begins to educate me about the work that goes into producing Shima Wasabi’s sole crop. The growing process of wasabi can stretch over anywhere from 12 to 18 months from initial planting to harvest. Consecutive harvests are conducted every 12 months, and the plants do require proper care in the interim, with attention paid to the plants’ natural responses to the changing of the seasons. For example, June to September is known to be the flowering season, and this is also the period during which baby leaves grow.

During the harvesting season, the wasabi plants are handpicked from Mondays to Thursdays, ensuring their freshness and quality upon delivery to the farm’s top-tier customers around the country, ranging from wholesalers, home deliveries, to fine-dining restaurants. The business is currently exploring export opportunities.

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Almost every part of the wasabi plant is edible, with each part carrying varying intensities of flavour and pungency

Waste not, Want not

Almost every part of the plant is edible, and each part carries that distinctive wasabi flavour, albeit with varying degrees of flavour intensity and pungency. Wasabi flowers are a popular and beautiful garnish, the leaves are often used as canapé wraps, and the stalks frequently find their way into salads. The stem is the holy grail of the enterprise. This is the hottest, most prized part of the plant, which when grated releases the chemical allyl isothiocyanate—this is what gives you that paralysing nasal hit and shoots all the way into your brain. Shima Wasabi does it best to use every part of the plant; scrap pieces from general harvest processing are set aside and used to make powders.

Atkinson hands me a wasabi stalk and asks me to take a bite. It is expectedly pungent, but not as hot as I’d anticipated. It has the texture of celery, and is slightly bitter, but surprisingly refreshing; the taste contains hints of crisp apple. Real wasabi, being naturally water-based, gives you a quick temporary hit of hotness, unlike oil-based chilli concoctions which aftertaste lingers on your palate. What captures my curiosity most is the fact that real wasabi is not always the mustard-green colour most of us commonly associate it with.

“When you grate the wasabi, it can look anything from grey to yellow, pink or purple. It is green at the top of the stem, but as you get towards the bottom of it, the colour varies,” Atkinson says. She elaborates on why we are often presented with artificially coloured horseradish masked as wasabi. It isn’t only because wasabi is very fussy about its environment and hence difficult to cultivate. “Wasabi is a labour-intensive crop,” Atkinson explains. “It takes a long time to get a single stem to grow, and there is still no better way to harvest it than by hand. We don’t use machines here. And we add no preservatives [to the final product].”

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Crossing cultural confines

Given the highly multicultural society here down under, wasabi is no longer just the precinct of Japanese cuisine. It is increasingly being used in inventive ways to emphasise the fact that Australia’s food culture is one of the most progressive in the world. Born In Brunswick, a trendy all-day establishment in North Hobart that serves up creative wasabi-inspired dishes for both brunch and dinner, is run by owner Con Vailas. The restaurant’s kitchen is helmed by young and talented head chef Josh Retzer, who is celebrated for his penchant for experimentation. Retzer grows his own wasabi at home, watering it daily. At work, he uses Shima Wasabi’s mustard-flavoured leaves to wrap canapés, as they have a texture similar to that of betel leaves. “Everything looks great wrapped in them,” he declares. He also uses the grated stem in sashimi dishes, and the flowers as garnishing.

Born In Brunswick’s dinner menu also features a wagyu beef tataki that comes wrapped in wasabi leaves. Another of Shima Wasabi’s most loyal customers is Craig Will, who is head chef at contemporary Australian restaurant Stillwater in Launceston. Stillwater, which focuses on working with fresh seasonal Tasmanian produce, is one of Tasmania’s most lauded restaurants. It was also recently awarded a Chef’s Hat (the Good Food Guide hats in Australia are an awards system similar to that of the Michelin stars). Will plays around with the local wasabi in many of his dishes, with sashimi being his favourite canvas. “You just can’t go past it,” he says during my visit. An unexpected combination he has discovered is how well wasabi actually complements beetroot. “I now make a dish of beetroot mousse with wasabi, beetroot puree, cream and gelatine,” he discloses.

After sitting down and studying Stillwater’s Chef’s Selection Menu, I decide to take the plunge and sample the dishes that incorporate Shima Wasabi. First come the oysters from St Helens, Tasmania, topped with wasabi cream—the quick hit of hotness from the wasabi is a surprisingly pleasant complement to the sea-spray freshness of the oysters. Next is a plate of charcoal-grilled tiger prawns in sauce vierge and wasabi, in which the sprinkled wasabi heightens the delightful sweetness of the succulent prawns.

After the two very pleasant starters, the main course arrives—a Cape Grim scotch fillet steak with oyster mushrooms, and ponzu sauce and wasabi on the side. I had not envisioned wasabi going well with steak, but the fusion of flavours elevates the dish to a whole new level.

Leaving Tasmania, I find myself nursing a new level of respect for the iconic Japanese condiment that is traditionally paired with raw food because of its antibacterial properties, among other health benefits. I harbour a new curiosity about how its unique flavour can be used in other cuisines, for added punch and freshness. As Retzer affirms, “Australian cuisine is [still] forming, in a way. Eventually it will happen; we are using multicultural ingredients to demonstrate [our] diversity.”

Born in Brunswick 410 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart TAS 7000. Tel: +61 438 250 515

Stillwater 2 Bridge Road, Launceston TAS 7250. Tel: +61 3 6331 4153

Currently based in Melbourne, the Australian city renowned for its progressive food scene, Julia lives and breathes all things food. Inspired by her love to explore new foods, Julia runs her healthy food blog – The Goodness Collective.