Since the audacious efforts of Japan Airlines to transport fresh tuna from Canada across the Pacific Ocean in the 1970s, the international sushi market has evolved to become as much a symbol of globalisation as McDonald's or Starbucks. But one of the cuisine's key ingredients – wasabi – has been a slow-mover, at least as far as authenticity is concerned.
"Anything you get in a packet I can guarantee is only going to be about 0.5 per cent wasabi at best because it’s impossible to grate fresh and hold that flavor, because what you're eating is a chemical reaction and that flavor has a timeline," explains Nick Russell of The Wasabi Company, based in southern England.
Russell says the remaining 99.5 per cent of your standard wasabi packet generally consists of horseradish, mustard, food coloring and preservatives.
And as fake wasabi has squeezed its way onto sushi plates worldwide, restaurant goers have largely missed out on the health benefits found in the real product, known as a wasabi rhizome which is the stem of the plant.
"The massive difference in there for me personally is the medical benefits you get from the fresh product," Russell says.
"There’s a reason the Japanese have been cultivating it since 1600 BC – originally for its ability to combat food poisoning, hence its pairing with raw fish.
"It’s an anti-inflammatory, its antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and one of the byproducts of the chemical reaction is it creates something called isothyocinates (ITCs) and they indirectly can interrupt the blood supply to cancer cells. So as a superfood it’s way up there."
But wasabi is a capricious crop to produce, and outside Japan there is a divide between producers as to whether they should produce in the traditional Japanese way in natural streams – what is known as ‘sawa’ wasabi – or apply modern techniques in a bid to improve output or adapt to different surroundings.
Having grown out of a watercress farming operation, The Wasabi Company cultivates in the old-fashioned way with stream-fed plantings in Hampshire and Dorset.
“We grow in the river system in old converted water rest beds, and because of the way the farm is set up certain parts of the farm are more productive than others," says Russell.
"That allows us to plant a couple of times a year in two big pushes, and that in turn allows us to harvest throughout the year because of the varying productivity of the beds."
He claims the life cycle of the plant is two years, so it’s a crop that certainly takes patience.
"Commercially it’s one of the hardest crops in the world to grow. Although it’s a very hardy plant, its behavior is sometimes very hard to plot or react to, and with it being a two-year lifecycle, any trials you’re going to run or, any data you’re going to collect, it’s two-year wait. So it’s long-term," he explains.
“It is an expensive product but it always has been. It’s always been known to be reserved for the ruling classes – certainly in Japan it was very much for the elite.
"And the price does reflect that in a way. In the UK we’re selling this at £250 a kilo."
He says the growth in popularity of Asian cuisine is helping to drive demand, and there is "definitely a retail market".
"It's going to be finding its way into a lot more homes," he says.
"For us it's chefs and distributors around Europe. We’re lucky enough to work with some of the best chefs in the UK.
"It’s not just Japanese cuisine either. We sell to Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus, and that’s about as French as it gets."
Marketing in continental Europe
The Wasabi Company is a supplier to Netherlands-based East4Fresh, which has invested heavily in preparing retail solutions for wasabi and other Asian vegetables in continental Europe. The company's 'Wasabi Gift Box' was a contender for this year's Fruit Logistica Innovation Award.
"We developed with the supermarkets in Germany and now the package is nice with a good story of untreated wood and so on, but we will develop a cheaper one because it’s too much packaging for the product," says representative Helien Verhagen.
"It's about getting a wider, bigger platform because we are a niche market and in a niche market it’s already difficult to sell the product," she says.
"We have sold some to Portugal but you need to have a high-class supermarket which will sell it in the metropolitan cities more or less like Frankfurt, Berlin, Hannover, cities like that."
Ironically, she adds it is very difficult to import wasabi from Japan for European retail, and it's a similar story with China for sourcing Chinese vegetables.
"Japan is not accredited with the right certificates to serve supermarkets in Europe ... They don’t use the GlobalG.A.P. system that we use in Europe.
"That’s why we only work with growers in Europe and try to develop that."
An update from Northern Ireland
Last year our sister publication Produce Business UK ran a story on Wasabi Crop Limited, a group in Northern Ireland that has experimented with new growing techniques for the traditional crop.
Dr. Sean Kitson says the group, in partnership with vegetable grower Gilfresh, has the wasabi planted in a 1.7-acre greenhouse.
"We haven’t got 1.7 acres full of wasabi rhizomes, but that’s the potential it could go to," he says, clarifying the plants occupy around 5 to 10 per cent of the greenhouse space.
"We’ve gone from the experimental stage from the polytunnels we've got. We’ve transferred to a greenhouse glasshouse and we’re doing some experiments now.
"We should have our first rhizomes harvested round about June this year."
He says the biggest challenge has been making the switch from polytunnels to the glasshouse.
"We haven't really got streams [like in Japan] so we can’t adopt that model, but we’ve adopted a new model where we could also adopt the streams model simulation through hydroponics," he says.
"We haven’t got to hydroponics yet but that’s something to bear in mind for the future. We’ve tried a number of things – drip irrigation and overhead irrigation. We have a mixture in our experiments."
We ask Kitson whether the first steps after the June harvest will be finding sales in the UK, and perhaps further afield in continental Europe.
"We’re interested in places like that but what our marketing strategy is that we haven't marketed too much. The website does that already, and we have to get our side right before we market it properly.
"It takes two years to grow ... It does take time to develop and know the ins and outs of what we’re dealing with."