Words by Nikaela Marie Peters Photographs by Julia Grassi
A relative of mustard and horseradish, the bright green, sinus-clearing condiment wasabi is generally available as a root or as powder. Here, we share the meticulous process—from production to the rituals surrounding its consumption.
Imagine a wasabi farm as a coral reef above the ocean’s surface. Between intricate walls of rocks, green life carpets all available surfaces. The light is indirect, and the air is cool. There is a sense in which a warmer, brighter environment exists miles overhead while the farm abides in a pocket of shadow and fog. The fragile lily pad–shaped leaves act as mini parasols, casting further shade on the rhizome and root structures of the plants.
Every wasabi farmer has his or her distinct method of cultivating and harvesting wasabi. Because the tradition is usually passed within a family from generation to generation, the cultivation and harvest techniques vary by farm. The plant itself might even vary in type from farm to farm, since the environment necessary to grow wasabi is quite specific and the number of farms is limited. Some consistencies remain, however. When the plants flower in the spring they are harvested for seed; the life span of the plant from a seedling to maturity ranges from one and a half to three years; the three-year-old perennials are completely uprooted in the final harvest; the rhizome (which contains the nutrients and flavor) is what is processed to make the spicy condiment commonly eaten with sushi.
Built to simulate the mountain creek beds where the plant is naturally found, wasabi farms are extremely intricate and highly specialized oases. Everything from water temperature to the type and size of stones affects the quality of the crop. The stepped terraces mimic the decline of a mountain river and allow the farmer to control the volume of water that consistently flows over the plants.
Wasabi, like so many elements of Japanese culture, is steeped in tradition, from production to consumption. While most commonly recognized as a condiment eaten alongside sushi (though most of what is served in sushi restaurants and sold in supermarkets is really horseradish dyed green), the plant is far more versatile than its condiment form. When damaged, the plant’s built-in defense mechanism responds by releasing strong sulfur compounds, which give wasabi its signature nose-burning, eyes-watering flavor. These same compounds have the ability to “freshen” flavors they’re paired with (which is why wasabi takes the “fishy” edge off raw seafood). They also have great health benefits and are being studied by cancer researchers because of their combative nature.
What can we learn from a wasabi farmer? That the old ways are often still the best ways; that building on nature’s blueprint can yield the best results; that patience is worthwhile; that secret defenses sometimes protect the strongest flavor.
Nikaela Marie Peters lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She is currently completing graduate studies in theology.