One of the most notable Japanese ingredients would be wasabi (山葵), commonly associated as a light green but powerfully hot paste served with sushi or noodles. However, similar to its country of origin, wasabi has its share of misconceptions; it possesses a history and deeper meaning cultivated by the early farmers who studied and raised it for several centuries.
Considered the earliest recording of wasabi, the Honzo Wamyo（本草和名） text (circa 918) lists various types of medicinal plants which included wasabi’s sterilizing properties that could fight against microbes and bacteria that cause food poisoning. Additionally, Engishiki（延喜式）,Japan’s oldest volume of laws and customs lists that citizens could use wasabi to pay off taxes to the central government. Wasabi’s volatility fascinated the former shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康;1543-1616) Sources say that aside from its many uses, Tokugawa prized the plant because its leaves resembled that of the Asarum caulescens which appear on his family crest.
Tokugawa first came across wasabi around 1607 when he moved into his castle in Shizuoka prefecture (静岡市), currently considered the origin place of wasabi farming as well as its highest producer. The area’s mountainous landscape serves well for sawa (サワ) farming which requires consistent, clean spring water to flow down through planted terraces of wasabi. Farmers lovingly tend to these lush fields; each farming family has developed their own unique way of growing wasabi that has been passed down through generations. Takahiro Ozawa, a farmer from Shizuoka, believes that responsible predecessors determine the success of a farm. Wasabi takes around one to two years to harvest so farmers have to monitor water temperatures and cleanliness year-round. Other than the sawa method, farmers can cultivate wasabi in wet soil through the oka (オカ) or hata (ハタ) method which doesn’t cost as much to maintain.
Presently, other countries have begun to grow this exacting plant including the United States, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, Austria, and Canada. However despite these efforts to bring wasabi farming outside of Japan, most commercial wasabi pastes actually possess no trace of wasabi. Big companies rely on more accessible ingredients like horseradish, Chinese mustard, and food coloring to create an imitation product that’s easier and quicker to sell in the mass market. In reality, wasabi’s infamous hot taste only lasts about 10 minutes after grating its fresh rhizome root before weakening. Those who can receive fresh wasabi would rub it against a shark skin grater that has a fine enough texture to fully bring out all the unique and nuanced spice. People can also eat its fresh leaves, mixing it with sesame oil and soy sauce to make a simple vegetable side-dish.
Particularly in Japan, wasabi farming faces many modern threats, notably funding and environmental changes. As assumed from its imitation competitor’s popularity, farming organic wasabi takes careful time and effort and can only grow in highly selective areas. These constraints therefore paved way for imitation wasabi to embed itself into the minds of our fast-paced consumer economy. Threats of global warming and of industrial contamination will cause current farmers to struggle with maintaining their wasabi beds which may require more infrastructure or technology to keep these areas safe. As a result, this would require more funding. Because of wasabi fields’ small size, they do not receive government assistance in Japan and sadly many wasabi fields have been abandoned due to these concerns. Additionally, some wasabi farming families disbanded because younger generations have opted to move into the city to find work.
As indicated by its patient and generous preparation, wasabi has deeper roots than what store-goers often notice from its bright green packaging. Food enthusiasts can hope that the Japanese government may better protect wasabi farming if they can deem the practice worthy on the list of Living National Treasures of Japan (Ningen Kokuhō; 人間国宝), a label given to highly prized and specialized national practices and crafts. Just as we should do with Japanese culture and any other culture, people should recognize wasabi as an evolving organism that takes sufficient amount of effort to fully appreciate. As a result, it possesses a distinct flavor, a strong spice both powerful yet fleeting.
Tokyo Foundation, Overview http://www.tokyofoundation.org/en/topics/japanese-traditional-foods/vol.-18-wasabi
Wasabia.com (Authentic vs Imitation, Cuisine): http://www.wasabia.com/wasabi-authentic.php
History of Wasabi http://www.kinjirushi.co.jp/english/wasabi/history/
Tale of Kitto-Katto, Shizouka’s Wasabi - https://www.tastemade.com/shows/tale-of-kitto-katto/wasabi-in-shizuoka
About Wasabi, Science and Uses - http://www.kaneku-wasabi.co.jp/english/e_wasabi/index.html
S&B Foods Worldwide (History, cuisines, future) - http://www.sbfoods-worldwide.com/foodCulture/wasabi/secret.html
Traditional Wasabi Growth - https://wasabi.org/japanese-traditional-wasabi-growing/
Notes from Great Aunt about my great grandfather’s wasabi farm, Katsuzawa Hime Wasabi Producer, Shizuoka