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On The Road in Oregon: Wasabi Farming with Frog Eyes

Wasabi is often associated with chopsticks and sashimi rolls in the United States, but the medicinal spice, native to Japan, also has an impressive ethnobotanical history. The Wasabi plant grows in delicate climates in the form of a rhizome (e.g. a subterranean root) that is then grated, clockwise, to create the spicy and flavorful paste with which most casual foodies are familiar. Come spring the plant produces delicate white flowers that are edible and often pickled in soy sauce– but because Wasabi is temperamental (often taking a year and a half to harvest) production outside of Japan is limited. As a result, most of the “wasabi” people outside of Japan think they are consuming is actually horseradish with a tinge of green dye.

We hear your cries and intense longing for the real deal, which is why we were delighted to find Frog Eyes Wasabi on the Oregon coast. Jennifer Bloeser and her husband Markus began wasabi farming with a starter kit in 2010. Today, due to the enormous response from people around the world, they have expanded to nine greenhouses (an acre of production) all of which were built by hand— a true demonstration of their sweet, spicy, and authentic labor of love.

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GC: How did you decide to get into the wasabi business?

We were interested in growing something at our house. We have a lot of great gardeners in our neighbor that are constantly sharing things with us, so we were looking for something to grow that was unique [and that we could share with them in return].  I had been given some wasabi starts a long time ago so it kind of snowballed from there. We decided instead of having a home garden to do this commercially, in large part because the Oregon coast presents optimal growing conditions for the crop.

GC: For people who don’t know much about how wasabi grows, what are optimal growing conditions?

Cool and fairly high humidity. So in Japan, it grows in highly-shaded creek beds with a dense canopy and cool flowing water. It doesn’t have to be in water to grow but it does need high humidity conditions. There are only a couple of farms growing wasabi in the U.S. today—one in Half Moon Bay, California, another in North Carolina, and a few in Washington. The wasabi world is small, so we all try to stay in touch.

GC: What is the difference in taste between what we’re accustomed to eating and real wasabi?

[Real wasabi] is smoother, creamier, and has a much more rounded and complex flavor to it. It actually has sweet notes to it too; it’s not just the burn in your nose.

GC: What was your life like before launching the Wasabi Store?

The farm is relatively young. It takes anywhere between 12-36 months to produce a market viable product; because of that we kept our jobs. I’m a marine scientist by trade but I’m now running a technology company, and my husband is an urban planner. He’s been amazing with the logistics of getting this up and running. We farm in the evenings and on the weekends. At some point we will transition into the farm full-time. Our lives are busier today, but much richer because of the farm.

GC: Tell me about the starter kit. It contains wasabi seedlings?

Wasabi is really difficult to grow from seeds, so to my knowledge all of the commercial growers around the world use tissue culture plants— that’s what we started with. There’s a nursery in British Columbia that we received our initial stock from. From there you can actually tissue culture it yourself, which we don’t do right now but we’re starting to get into that because it reduces your offshoot. I tell people it’s a lot like the spider plant–they produce small offshoots that you can pinch off and then grow into additional plants. Wasabi grows a little differently right along the stocks, but it does produce several offshoots per plant.

GC: What has been the most challenging aspect of production?

There are a couple. Initially, our biggest challenge was getting the infrastructure built to grow the wasabi. That was a physically-challenging aspect. Another challenge is market demand and timing. We’re trying to expand the farm so that we can supply all of our customers year round. So in 2010 we built two greenhouses, in 2011 we built another large one (they vary in size a little bit,) and then in 2012 we built six more. Now we’re in production mode, which we will be in for a couple years to figure out what the next series of expansion looks like. The popularity of wasabi is increasing, so our challenge is to meet the demand. We’re also at the whim of the weather; even though we have greenhouses, if it’s too hot or too cold, we worry.

GC: Where do you sell?

We have two lines: culinary business and horticulture. For culinary we sell to distribution companies, restaurants around the U.S., and to individuals throwing a dinner party. In terms of the horticulture line, it’s mostly individual gardeners who order direct from our website. But we also sell to plant and seed companies like Territorial and other garden centers.

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GC: Once you grade the rhizome, it loses its potency within 20 minutes right?

Yes, so it’s recommended that you grade it and then eat it within a half-hour. The heat or spicy molecules in wasabi are volatile compared to a pepper. It’s not an oil, it’s water soluble and reacts to oxygen. We have chefs that grade a bunch of it, put it in a ramekin, and then place Saran Wrap over the top. You can also freeze it and it will be totally fine. The rhizome lasts many weeks, we’ve had them in the fridge for three months. While I wouldn’t recommend that, you can easily store it in your fridge for a few weeks. It’s structured like a carrot so as long as you keep it cool and moist it will maintain its crunchiness.

GC: Your website reads that you’re trying to coordinate with academic research to identify and test low-impact nutrients.

We’d love to be organic but we’re just not there yet. We have Oregon State, The University of Oregon, and wonderful extension scientists and biologist at our disposal. The point is to refine our system and make the farm as low-impact as possible. The agricultural science is still pretty young for growing wasabi in the U.S., so it’s just a matter of developing the knowledge. Another goal of ours is to develop rain capture technology, because its Oregon! We haven’t built out the infrastructure yet, but we’re focusing on volume and design.

GC: How much water does the wasabi plant need?

We have an irrigation system that is very similar to the misters you see at the grocery store. Our plants are misted several times a day for about five minutes.

GC: Do you use fertilizers?

We tell people that they can use a basic 14-14-14, fertilizer [a complete fertilizer with a large amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium].

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The recipe for Soba Noodles with Fresh Wasabi is the Japanese equivalent of what Pasta Primavera is to Italians: it is both a culturally-ubiquitous staple and a celebrated delicacy. And as usual: making it fresh is best.

Soba Noodles With Fresh Wasabi

Yield: Serves 6

  • 1 pound soba noodles
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup minced green onions
  • 3 tablespoons fresh wasabi rhizome (or to taste)
  • 1⁄2 pound fresh wasabi leaves*
  • 1⁄2 pound fresh wasabi stems**

Method

  1. In a 5- to 6-quart pan over high heat, bring about 3 quarts water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until tender to bite, about 3 to 6 minutes. Drain noodles and rinse gently under cold running water until cool.
  2. Heat two tablespoons of asian sesame oil in sauté pan. Chop fresh wasabi stems into 1-inch pieces. Chop leaves into strips. Sauté stems for approximately 10 minutes. Add leaves after 8 minutes and sauté for final two minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil as a dressing. Pour about half of dressing into a small bowl and reserve. Add noodles to the large bowl; mix in dressing to coat. Cover and chill until cold.
  4. Just before serving, add reserved dressing and sautéed wasabi stems and leaves to noodles and mix to coat. Sprinkle salad with green onions. Add freshly-grated wasabi to taste.

* Wasabi leaves taste like mustard leaves. If fresh wasabi leaves can’t be found, use other proxies such as spinach, kale, or mustard leaves.

**Wasabi stems taste like asparagus. If fresh wasabi stems can’t be found, use other proxies such as asparagus, snow peas, or garlic.

You can order wasabi roots, plants, and starter leaves from the Wasabi Store here

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