LONDON (Kyodo) — A British farm has become the first place in Europe to grow and sell the native Japanese plant wasabi, as European chefs increasingly use it in a wide range of dishes.
A farm in Dorset in southwest England began growing wasabi about three years ago and says the plant is now being "snapped up" by chefs all over Europe since going on sale in July.
Wasabi is native to Japan and is part of the brassica family which includes horseradish and mustard. It has a pungent taste, similar to horseradish, and is traditionally served with raw fish and sushi.
Jon Old, project manager at the Wasabi Company, decided to cultivate the plant due to the growing popularity of Japanese food in Britain and the trend for top chefs to use grated wasabi in sauces for fish and meat, ice creams and chocolates.
He is confident this is the first commercial wasabi venture in Europe after another firm unsuccessfully tried to grow the plant in Scotland. Wasabi is already cultivated outside Asia and can be found in the United States and New Zealand.
The British wasabi is grown in gravel beds with natural spring water flowing on top. The company has also created a shaded environment, similar to conditions in Japan where wasabi is found alongside mountain streams.
But Old declines to go into detail about the techniques employed in case other farms start growing wasabi.
When establishing the farm he tried to contact Japanese wasabi growers for advice but they were not forthcoming.
"I don't think the Japanese are terribly keen to have other people growing wasabi as they are facing competition from growers in Thailand and South Korea," he told Kyodo News.
He sells the wasabi plant's pale green rhizome -- the underwater root-like stem bearing both roots and shoots -- to clients that include high-class restaurants, hotels and gourmets.
One of Old's first customers was celebrated chef Raymond Blanc who was amazed to hear there was a supply of home-grown wasabi. He uses it in beurre blanc, a butter-based sauce.
Chef Steve Drakes was first introduced to wasabi in Japan and was happy to find that he had a home-grown supply.
He said, "When I got back to Britain, I was determined to use wasabi and thrilled to discover a local source. I grate it into a Jerusalem artichoke puree which seems to lock in the distinctive flavor while slightly mellowing the heat."
The wasabi is priced at 30 pounds ($48) per 100 grams and is even proving popular with amateur chefs. Wasabi now features on cooking websites in Britain and is recommended for grating into mashed potatoes and hamburgers and added to vinaigrettes.
The Dorset farm has a long history of growing watercress but was keen to diversify into new markets, hence the decision to cultivate wasabi.
Old said much of the "wasabi" consumed by people in Japanese restaurants is in the form of powders and pastes which actually contain little of the real plant and instead have coloring, flavoring and mustard.
And he has had limited success in selling to Japanese restaurants in Britain.
He said, "We are selling to some Japanese restaurants but, to be honest, they are harder to crack and the take-up has been slow. They seem perfectly happy to be using the wasabi pastes and powders they have been using for years. It's much more the high-end European chefs who are using the home-grown plant."