Genuine Green

Sushi lovers rejoice: Real wasabi has taken roots in the Islands.
In Japan, wasabi has traditionally been seen as something that helps keep you healthy. Scientists have discovered that it indeed has antimicrobial properties. photo: Rae Huo

Wasabi has a way of letting you know you’ve eaten it: a burning rush of heat through your nostrils. Unlike chili peppers, it’s a short-lived sensation, but poignant nonetheless. We’ve all experienced it, that green smear in between the rice and fish served at sushi bars. But few of us have ever tasted the real thing.

The green paste we have grown accustomed to is a mere imitation, a mixture of plain horseradish, mustard and green food coloring. Sold in powdered form that is mixed with water, or as a premixed paste in a tube, “wasabi” is ubiquitous.

Fresh wasabi is a rare find and distinctly different. The fresh root is gnarly; it has a grassy, green flavor and a hint of sweetness when finely grated. Most chefs use a fine-toothed grater; in Japan, a sharkskin grater is preferred.

Until the past decade, you had to go to Japan to get the real thing: a root that grew along stream beds in the mountains, where a river’s cool, flowing waters provided a unique growing environment. Once in a while, at a local sushi bar, you’d witness the unwrapping of a suspicious root that had been smuggled into town.

In the early 1990s, farmers began cultivating wasabi in Oregon, hoping to supply the growing demand for this unique condiment as sashimi and sushi grew in popularity in America. You can now find fresh wasabi in a tube, and even the fresh root can occasionally appear at Japanese markets and specialty stores around town. But on the Big Island, Lance Yamashiro grows the real thing.

Situated in cool, damp Volcano, Yamashiro’s 60-acre farm has produced daikon, cabbage and flowers for three generations. “I wanted to find something that no one else was growing,” says Yamashiro. “Each generation did something special on this farm; wasabi is my thing.”

Yamashiro spent years and dollars researching wasabi. “I bought some plants from Oregon and Canada, investing a couple of thousand dollars here and there. I lost that—it was like going to Las Vegas. It was a learning process.”

After several years, he figured out how to cultivate the plant, a member of the cabbage family. Through e-mails, he found a farmer in Japan who would sell him a single plant, a feat in itself, since few farmers want to share this special item. After purchasing the plant, Yamashiro had it immediately sent to Taiwan for tissue culture, wherein the plant was used to produce more plants—many more. One day, 12,000 plants in flasks arrived in Volcano. Each one needed to be segregated and put into a planting medium within 36 hours. That “single plant” from the Japanese farmer wound up costing about $10,000.

But Yamashiro’s gamble is beginning to pay off. With a half-acre under shade cloth and his fourth generation of plants now acclimated to their environment, Yamashiro hopes to double his plantings this year and increase them by 50 percent each year. Wasabi grows year-round, but more vigorously in the winter months, when it’s cooler. Vigorous by its time frame, of course—it takes two years for the root of a single wasabi plant to weigh two to three ounces.

Yamashiro has a steady clientele of a handful of top restaurant kitchens, including Alan Wong’s, Roy’s Kihei, Four Seasons (at Ko‘ele and Manele, Lana‘i) and Hotel Hana-Maui. They are willing to pay $50 per pound, and Yamashiro can barely keep up with the demand. It may be a while before we see his fresh wasabi in sushi bars around town, but, like him, we’ll bet that the day will come.