(Published in Korean Air’s June 2018 issue, http://morningcalm.koreanair.co.kr, but here in it’s slightly longer original form)
Tracing the River Abe northward out of central Shizuoka City, it’s only a 15-minute drive before urban Shizuoka is replaced by ever-heightening hills that offer glimpses at many of this part of Japan’s culinary specialties. Small mikan groves give an orange accent to the greenery. Steep, wooded slopes are punctuated by terraced rows of green-leafed tea bushes. And if you turn off the highway, following narrow curving roads deep into the hills, you’ll come across leafy patches of wasabi.
Shizuoka is Japan’s biggest wasabi producer by area, with 125 hectares devoted to the plant, and this rural part of central Shizuoka is where wasabi was first cultivated in Japan, at some point in the late 1500s to early 1600s in the hillside village of Utogi. As the sign on the road into Utogi says, this is “the birthplace of wasabi,” and in the kitchen of Utsurogi, the village restaurant, the cooks use every part of the wasabi plant in the most traditional of ways to create classic, rustic fare.
The large leaves are given a light battering and fried into a tempura that’s served as part of a lunch set with soba noodles. The stalks are chopped and lightly pickled. The root-like stem, which is where wasabi’s nutrients, flavour and heat are concentrated, is freshly grated and served as a condiment—here for mixing into the soba noodle broth—but also mixed with sake lees to make a creamy, umami-rich pickle called wasabi-zuke.
The Wasabi Farm
A short drive south from Utogi, Kiyonori Izumo’s family has been growing wasabi in the hills of Tawaramine for the last 100 years, in typical Shizuoka fashion using tiered gravel beds that allow for a constant flow of cold mountain water—at a fairly steady temperature of 13 degrees—to run down through the 1,500sqm farm. This type of semi-aquatic wasabi cultivation is called sawa wasabi, although in parts of Japan with cool air and higher humidity it’s possible to cultivate hatake (field) wasabi. The result is essentially the same wasabi, which is part of the Brassicaceae family along with horseradish and mustard.
“It’s interesting because the wasabi fields in Nagano are flat, but in Shizuoka we have always grown wasabi in tiered fields. The flow of pure cold water is essential to the wasabi surviving here and it adds to the quality and flavour; it’s full of minerals,” Mr. Izumo says, as he pulls a wasabi plant from one of the patches to show a several inch-long knotty stem.
“This one isn’t ready yet—it takes a year to 18 months to mature—but you can still smell the sweet, earthy aroma. You don’t get that with processed wasabi in tubes; that uses a blend of wasabi, cheap horseradish and other ingredients, because [with a stem costing upward of 500yen] using real wasabi would be too expensive.”
The wasabi here is grown year-round, Mr. Izumo explains, and contrary to its look, wasabi isn’t a root. It grows above ground—albeit semi-submerged—and it grows upward, with the lower tip of the stem generally giving more heat because it’s older. “It’s healthy, too,” Mr. Izumo adds. “Eating fresh wasabi daily kills H-pylori bacteria in the stomach, which is said to cause stomach ulcers and cancer.”
Farm to Table
Back in the center of Shizuoka City at Step In Tamaruya, a wasabi preserve processing plant and store that’s a regular stop on bus tours, there’s a poster in the plant-viewing area that lists more of wasabi’s health credentials. It is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, as well as being an anti-oxidant, an aid for stomach function, a means of preventing thrombosis, good for bone strength, and importantly given that it is frequently eaten with raw fish, it can kill parasites, the poster says.
In the store, there are dozens of variations on the wasabi theme, from wasabi-flavoured Kit-Kats, ginger ale and ice cream to more conventional wasabi-flavoured dressings, wasabi paste, and fresh wasabi stems. You see the same product lineup at the souvenir stores at Shizuoka Station, but explore the restaurants nearby and you’ll also find higher end restaurants like Wasabi no Heso and Kakuya Bessho using wasabi in both classic and unexpected ways.
The focus at Wasabi no Heso is seafood—there are plump cuts of tuna, sea bream, and various in-season specials in glass display cases on the main counter—much of which is served as sashimi (raw slices), albeit with a local twist. “In Shizuoka, we use freshly grated wasabi with sashimi, but we don’t mix it into the soy sauce, as that dilutes the wasabi’s flavour. We put a little of the grated wasabi on the fish, then lightly dip the fish in soy,” says head chef Taro Warashina.
Chef Warashina also uses the local wasabi to make wasabi renkon, his take on karashi renkon, a common sight on izakaya menus across Japan that sees miso and mustard (karashi) stuffed between two slices of lotus root (renkon) and then deep-fried. Chef Warashina instead mixes wasabi-zuke with a little fresh wasabi for the filling, the result being a flavour-packed experience that begins with the sweet, almost sour funk of sake lees and the then delivers a hit of wasabi heat.
At Kakuya Bessho, the chefs have also added wasabi to the drink menu, mixing freshly grated wasabi with soda and shochu – a clear distilled spirit typically around 25% ABV that’s made most often with potato, rice or barley. Shintaro Akahori, Kakuya Bessho’s manager—and a certified shochu advisor—explains: “Wasabi tends to be an accompaniment, not the main focus of a dish or a drink, but when you use a high-quality fresh wasabi, you have more possibilities,” he says.
“With our wasabi-jochu, the fresh wasabi has an initial sweetness followed by gentle heat that goes very well with the fizziness of the soda. It’s balanced. If you used tube wasabi, it wouldn’t work – it’d be harsh heat without any aroma or flavour. Fresh wasabi is always best.”