Wasabi’s value doesn’t stop at being a fiery complement to sushi. The root from which the fluorescent-green condiment is made is believed to have cancer-fighting properties and the ability to prevent grey hair. But before you add a sinus-clearing blob of the stuff to your next California roll, there’s something you should know.
“Almost all the wasabi in Canada is imitation,” a mix of horseradish and food colouring, says Brian Oates, president and chief science officer of Vancouver-based Pacific Coast Wasabi, the largest commercial wasabi producer in the world outside Japan. “And only five per cent of sushi restaurants in Japan serve real wasabi.”
But Oates wants to change that. Over the last 20 years, he’s developed a technique for growing the plant to produce wasabi that’s on par with what’s grown in Japan in terms of taste (more flavour, shorter burn) and concentration of bioactive components. The specifics are a trade secret, but Oates partners with farmers on Vancouver Island and other sites in British Columbia and the United States to grow wasabi using cool, fresh water, inside large greenhouses. (In Japan, it’s traditionally grown in cultured mountain streams.)
The method is working. Pacific Coast Wasabi is poised to increase the size of its crop exponentially as customers on both sides of the Pacific hunger for quality wasabi. “As more people find out they’re eating an imitation, they want the real thing,” says Oates, adding that demand has increased 65 per cent per year over the last two years. In 2012, the company produced one tonne of wasabi, worth $400,000. Oates anticipates doubling the size of his operation to 1.6 hectares by the end of 2013, with an eye to eventually having 12 hectares.
A growing chunk of that will feed the biomedical market. “It’s the Holy Grail,” Oates says. This year he founded a new company, Utremic Therapeutics Inc., to isolate the plant’s active ingredients and run clinical trials, with the goal of selling wasabi as a dietary supplement. “We think the potential is huge.”