Chances are, you have never eaten real wasabi. In the United States most “wasabi” served at sushi restaurants is actually a combination of mustard, horseradish, and food coloring. True Wasabi is almost entirely grown in the mountainous regions of Japan, but recently, American-grown wasabi has become a reality, thanks to Appalachian wasabi.
Authentic wasabi (Wasabia Japonica) is in the same family as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy. It grows in shady, wooded areas along the banks of rocky creeks and streams, with their roots constantly bathed in mineral-heavy water that never reaches above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a combination that is rare in most parts of the North America, but that exists in some parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. With the right location and a little know-how, local farmers are turning what used to be a rare, imported delicacy into a new cash crop.
Even in Japan, low crop yields and high demand keep the value of real wasabi extremely high. This is compounded by the fact that the plant only grows in certain climates, and the wasabi root takes over a year to mature enough to harvest it. The plant also does best as a small crop, developing a high risk for fungal problems when it is grown in bulk. A pound of authentic wasabi can cost up to $140 in the United States.
According to legend, wasabi was originally discovered over 1,000 years ago in the Shizuoka region of Japan. The farmer who first cultivated wasabi showed his discovery to Ieyasu, a local warlord who would one day become Shogun. Ieyasu declared that wasabi was a treasure that should only be grown in the remote Shizuoka mountain region, and even today many of the techniques of wasabi cultivation are kept secret from the public.
Despite the many challenges, farmers have learned how to grow wasabi outside of the Shizuoka region. Appalachian wasabi has the potential to be an enormous cash-crop. For the past 30 years, companies like Real Wasabi in Hilton Head Island, SC have been paying farmers to grow Appalachian wasabi plants. While the company admits that it still has to import some of its product from Japan, it is getting more and more of its wasabi from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Wasabi is also known for its medicinal properties. In Japan, it was noted even 1,000 years ago that people who consumed it seemed healthier than those who didn’t. In modern times wasabi is known to help fight certain cancers. The American National Cancer Institute believes that wasabi helps the body remove excess hormones that cause cancers of the breast or prostate.
So the next time you are out at your favorite sushi restaurant, instead of spicing your California roll with a paste mix of horseradish and mustard, remember to bring along your own Appalachian wasabi paste. Your tastebuds will thank you, your body will thank you, and you so will your local mountain wasabi farmers.