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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Canadian Wasabi Too Hot For Japan?

I must admit that I have no real idea what wasabi is. A horseradish, I suppose, but even then, I admit my ignorance.

I do know that it burns the crap out of my tongue and occasionally brings a tear to my eye, but I have developed a decent amount of tolerance for the green paste whenever I use it as a condiment with my Japanese foods - like my unagi sushi (eel sushi) that I just had for lunch.

While usually just the domain of Japanese farmers, thanks to a fairly large population of Japanese immigrants living and working in Canada for generations, one would have expected that bringing Japanese industry to Canada would be a logical step.

Except… the Japanese or Japanese Canadians or Canadians of Japanese descent aren't involved as the main ingredient here.

Meet Pacific Coast Wasabi, a Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based empire that, obviously, produces real wasabi (Wasabi japonica).

Real wasabi? Wait… WTF?

Apparently real wasabi is a fairly rare commodity, and that stuff I've been eating with my sushi two or three times a week—that's clown wasabi, bro.

From what I've been told… what I've been eating is like comparing Velveeta Cheese to Brie. Processed to death… that green wasabi paste… it's apparently a dyed mix of mustard and European horseradish. Dyed?

Oh… my… god-do. Is nothing sacred?

Maybe I need to eat at a better quality sushi restaurant.

So why are we, the people, being screwed out of our wasabi? Do you want the truth? You can't handle the truth about wasabi!

Well… you can handle it - just wash your fingers before touching your hands or hidden body parts. Just trust me.

Wasabi… this particular type of Japanese horseradish… comes from the mountainous areas of the country… specifically found in gravel stream beds of cool mountain water.

And so… since farmers don't give a dam… they create wasabi farms that simulate these rocky mountain streams.

Cool, right? And while there are quite a few wasabi farms around the country, thanks to an increase in population and the fact that people around the world are now enjoying Japanese food more often, an already short-supplied commodity has become very rare, indeed.

So… demand is high. Supply is short. Let's create a fake commodity… a substitute. 

According to the folks at Pacific Coast Wasabi,  there have also been smaller crop yields, which can be attributed, they say, to the radioactive contamination from Fukushima… though I would like to see some numbers backing up that claim. To me the Fukushima link is just hearsay.

Let's discount it for now. The fact is… even before Fukushima, we've been burning our lips on fake wasabi. Ow, the humiliation.

But don't blame Canada. In fact… Canada is coming to the rescue…

After some 20 years of hush-hush top-secret Canadian-led research, wasabi farmers on Canada's left coast are growing the real-deal Japanese wasabi in computer-controlled greenhouses… and is now producing enough real Japanese wasabi to choke a horse… or whatever the secret ingredient is in that fake stuff.

Secret research? Again… WTF?

While real Japanese wasabi grows to perfection within a year-round temperature fluctuating between 10C and 18C (50F - 64.4F)… which is why the temperate climes of the Westcoast are ideal… PCW says it COULD tell us what those secrets are, but then it would have to force-feed us a bushel of wasabi and thus kill us. 

We can mention, however, that PCW has wasabi got teachers (about farming), IT workers (because the greenhouses are THAT technical), construction workers (because they love the Village People)…

… actually, I don't know what the construction workers are for… probably to build more greenhouses… some 57 more greenhouses are planned on the 34-acre property… each greenhouse can output 1,200 kilograms (2,645.5 lbs) of the wasabi plant.  

But PCW needs investors first… because… as mentioned… the greenhouses are computer-controlled technological… well… nightmare would be my description, but these guys seem to know what they are doing. 
Wasabi paste - the fake stuff... I think.

Real wasabi is the rhizome… the thick green stalk (see photo at very top) that is grated on a ceramic grater… and then left alone for a few minutes for the grated parts to heat-up. That's real wasabi… and I've never had it.

According to those in the know—elitist bastard foodies whom I secretly admire—real wasabi has heat… but it is far more subtle than that fake stuff we've been ingesting.

There is no throat-searing pain. There is no eye-watering. There is no crying in wasabi. Essentially, real wasabi will not over-power anything's natural flavor… and… I can't say that about the fake stuff.

But how does the Canadian variety from PCW stack up? Obviously you'd expect this response, but the company says their product will stack up against the very best Japanese wasabi plants.

But get this… PCW say it still has to contend with Japanese pride.

You know that old chestnut… "It's not as good as Jap-a-nese _______ (fill in the blank)."
There's also the perception that farmed wasabi grown in a greenhouse is never going to be as flavorful as farmed wasabi NOT grown in a greenhouse like they do in Japan.

Oh well… despite PCW's foray into wasabi as a condiment, that was never the company's original intent. It was to grow wasabi as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

There are many studies (mostly from Japan) that have used wasabi extracts as an anti-cancer property, as well as an anti-inflammatory—in mice, of course.

While the evidence exists that wasabi may hold some benefits medicinally to cure mouse cancer once and for all and maybe for humans eventually, Japanese scientists have gone on record as saying that research into the medicinal properties of wasabi have been snafu-ed (situation normal all fugged up) owing to them being unable to get enough real wasabi for research. 

So… even though Japanese exporters aren't sure about the power of PCW's real wasabi… even though they still purchase it… PCW may at least have another buyer in the scientific community.

Will PCW help alleviate the wasabi shortage… and bring the prospect of real sushi to this bloggers lunch table (his desk at work where he is muzzled and shackled)? We'll have to wait and see... in the mean time... I get to use fake wasabi. I feel so... cheap and dirty.

Andrew Joseph

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