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Media Articles: In the Press

Following is a translation of the French broadcast text of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 'Le Semaine Verte' Broadcast on Canadian national television, Sunday March 18 2001:


Le Semaine Verte (CBC)

Reporter - Therese Champagne

Wasabi is a green aquatic plant used as a condiment to accompany sushi. Even in Canada's warmest climate of British Columbia, Wasabi is difficult to cultivate, but it looks as though the game is worth playing. Sushi and sashimi are among the delicacies of Japanese cuisine. These raw fish-based meals are always accompanied by a green paste called Wasabi. What sushi lovers are unaware of however, is that Wasabi served in America is seldom real.

In Canadian restaurants, chefs such as sushi master Yutaka Yamamoto prepare the so-called Wasabi with a horseradish-based reconstituted powder. "Why are we being served an imitation?" the reporter asks, "Because, expensive" replies Yamamoto. Indeed, it would be too costly to serve the real thing just like it is done in high-class Japanese restaurants. On special occasions, however, Yamamoto imports some from Tokyo, at full price. "About thirty-five dollars" indicates Yamamoto, showing a green carrot. "Grated, you get about twice this amount" this time holding a small ceramic bowl.

In Japan, fresh Wasabi is sold one hundred and fifty dollars per kilogram. It is expensive, and must also be consumed rapidly ; its explosive flavour disappears shortly after being grated and exposed to air. It is one of the characteristics of this plant for a long time unknown outside of the country of the rising sun.

Wasabi or "wasabia Japonica", by its scientific name, is a member of the cruciferous family, just like horseradish, cabbage and broccoli. The plant takes at least eighteen months to attain full maturity. The part of the plant that is valued by the Japanese is the rhizome, which is the underground stem partially visible at ground surface. According to legend, Wasabi has been growing along Japanese streams and riversides for over twelve centuries. History associates it to the Samurai table and to Boug and Zen temples. Nowadays, The Japanese employ elaborate techniques of semi-aquatic cultivation. They convert grounds into rows, and enlarge or divert water courses in order to irrigate their crops abundantly. This system is hard to replicate in British Columbia, because environment protection laws prohibit such exploitation of fish bearing streams. It is therefore impossible to imitate Japanese producers. However, it is possible to adapt their method, and that is what is done at Pacific Coast Wasabi in Vancouver, where Wasabi is grown in green houses. Botanist Brian Oates has been studying Wasabi cultivation for seven years and has developed his own hydroponics technique that uses much less water but give the plants the impression of growing in a stream. Brian doesn't give the details of his method preferring not to disclose his secrets. He explains that the Japanese are also discreet with their agricultural methods. "I would call it a closed community with very few growers outside Japan. If production is kept to a limit, then prices stay high." To discover the secret growing technique is not the only difficulty in growing this crop. Seed is very difficult to obtain and that is another reason why the community stays closed. Pacific Coast Wasabi controls this problem by producing its own seeds under special conditions. You have to wait two years before a plant produces seeds following then a minimum of 18 month until harvest. "Its a slow process, everything is a slow process with Wasabi."

Of course, Brian Oates could have chosen an easier cultivation method also employed in British Columbia. In Vancouver suburbs, in a place we were asked not to specify for the owner's fear of being robbed, lies a garden of a million and a half Wasabi plants tucked away under the trees. This part of the world where summers are chilly and winters usually without frost is the only place in Canada where the vegetable can grow in soil. Taiwanese Stone Lin compares this climate to the "Ali" mountain in his country where Wasabi grows endlessly : "It's good because the temperature is cool and there's a lot of shade. Wasabi doesn't like sunshine." Lin harvests his vegetables planted three years earlier, cleans the rhizomes by removing the roots and detaches the shoots which he will replant into pots. His company also allows him to sell young plants, which can be transplanted into gardens or kept for indoor decoration. This method of cultivation is relatively easy, but does not give a top-quality vegetable according to Japanese standards. "This one is worth two dollars and this one four dollars" points out Lin, displaying pale green Wasabi rhizomes. They are sold cheaper because of their appearance.

The Japanese prefer straight stems and greener vegetables. "This, on the other hand, is a nice green" explains Brian Oates, showing the inside of one of his rhizomes. His hydroponics technique is much closer to the Japanese ideal of methods, and that is why he chose it. He can therefore sell it at a higher price, that is to say from seven to fourteen dollars a piece. Prices must also be competitive, and especially when international markets are aimed at.

Wasabi is grown on a small scale in many Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, China, Thailand and Indonesia, and in Australia and New-Zealand. There is also an important American producer in Oregon. The ultimate market for local and non-local producers is Japan, for annual consumption of Wasabi there can represent up to six million dollars. However, British Columbia producers are aware that Japan imports only an infinitesimal amount of this vegetable. They are therefore compelled to plan for other uses of their product. Stone Lee, for instance, is interested in the vegetable's transformation possibilities. In Taiwan, plants grown in soil are used to produce by-products such as crackers, dressings and horseradish-based imitations. "We are confident in the North American market. We also want to explore the plant's pharmaceutical potential." states Brian Oates.

A recent study shows Wasabi consumption can prevent tooth cavities. The Japanese also acknowledge its antibacterial qualities, which is why they serve it with raw fish. Right now, however, the markets for British Columbia Wasabi are only the province's restaurants. Chef Yutaka Yamamoto sees there is a very promising future : "It is similar to Japanese Wasabi, but cheaper." Customers, used to a powdered imitation, warmly welcome fresh Wasabi : "The powder releases burning heat. Fresh Wasabi is much more flavourful." notices Brian Stoner a sushi customer at the restaurant.

In Japan, this condiment is on every table. It enhances the flavour of fish, desserts and even wine. Still unknown on this part of the Atlantic, it will take time for Canadians to acquire a taste for it. Producers will therefore have to be patient ; the market for it might be as slow to grow as Wasabi itself.

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