Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Business/Technology

March 1, 2007

CONDIMENTS — Wasabi: real vs. fake

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — When thieves robbed swanky sushi hotspot Yakuza, they made off with a number of high-ticket items.

The hottest part of their haul? Armloads of real wasabi, valued at more than $100.

As these condiment crooks seemed to know last year, real wasabi is a precious find.

———

A FICKLE SUBSTANCE

That green glob plopped on the edge of the everyday sushi plate that most people call wasabi is not the real thing. A poor imitation, it’s typically a mixture of horseradish, mustard extract and food coloring. mundane

The authentic substance is actually a rare and expensive vegetable. It still tastes hot, but has a sweeter finish that doesn’t assault the sinuses. Consumers are beginning to develop a taste for it.

Until recently, wasabi wasn’t available outside of Japan. It’s a difficult plant to grow because few places outside of the country mimic the conditions that enable its growth.

It takes roughly two years to grow a wasabi plant, and when it’s harvested, the entire plant is taken and cannot be used for future cultivation.

Such complexities keep supplies low and prices high.

———

WASABI IN THE WEST

One Oregon company found the Pacific Northwest had ideal conditions for harvesting the vegetable. Pacific Farms in Florence, Ore., was the first to grow wasabi root in the United States in the early 1990s. The company says it now processes about 50,000 pounds of wasabi a year, although it has since moved its growing operations back to Japan.

In 2005, Real Wasabi also began selling wasabi, grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Real Wasabi CEO Doug Lambrecht says demand for wasabi is continually growing, and at $77 a pound, the company is overdue for a price increase for its root.

Real wasabi is still used sparingly in sushi because of cost, but foodies are seeing it more often in some of the high-end restaurants as a specialty item at places like Oceanaire Seafood Room or Houston’s and boutique locales.

‘‘The more the public is educated on it, the more they are asking for it and saying, ’Why do I have this substitute on my plate?’’’ said Bridgett Klingler, spokeswoman for Pacific Farms.

‘‘Once you get a taste it’s hard to go back,’’ said Ian Skomski, sushi chef at Yakuza. ‘‘It’s amazing stuff.’’

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