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I CAN’T SAY I didn’t see this coming: Back on March 28, 2014, I was shopping at Mitsuwa, my local Japanese market, and marveled at the price/lb. of fresh wasabi: $99.99.
This was not just any wasabi, mind. This particular horseradish-like root of fluorescent green and head-clearing pungency comes from Shizuoka Prefecture. Which is like knowing your Harris Tweed comes from the Outer Hebrides.
Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits of my playing the wasabi futures market.
Details are given by Motoko Rich and Makino Inoue’s “In Japan, ‘a Sense of Crisis’ for a Fiery Staple of Local Cuisine,” The New York Times, February 6, 2022. Rich and Inoue write, “For hundreds of years, wasabi grew wild in mountains across Japan, blooming near forests and huddling alongside streams. About four centuries ago, growers in Shizuoka [about 90 miles southwest of Tokyo ] started to cultivate wasabi as a crop.”
The Best Wasabi. “The most well-known Shizuoka variety, called mazuma, tends to sell for 50 percent more than wasabi from other parts of Japan,” Rich and Inoue report.
Well, about 2 1/2 years ago, I saw a wasabi price rise to $166.99/lb., and the label no longer identified Shizuoka specifically as its source.
Rich and Inoue describe the crisis, “Over the last decade, the volume of wasabi produced in Shizuoka has declined by close to 55 percent, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.”
Trees and Climate. Environmental aspects are at the heart of this: “In an effort to supply Japan with a fast-growing source of lumber to rebuild after World War II, government planners seeded mountain tracts exclusively with Japanese cedar or cypress.”
“But,” Rich and Inoue continue, “as cheap wood imports supplanted Japan’s lumber in the 1960s, the cedar and cypress were left to grow, crowding out other kinds of plants that would better contain and nourish the mountain springs that wasabi needs to thrive.”
Climate change affects wasabi as well: The plant does best in conditions no warmer than about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But there’s also this problem of hills not holding the water long enough.
My Wasabi Buys. In truth, I typically buy wasabi (and ginger) in tubes, thus saving myself the fine grating.
Rich and Inoue write, “The wasabi that comes in tubes and packets and is familiar to many diners is actually a blend of wasabi and horseradish dyed green—or contains no wasabi at all. In Japan, chefs at higher-end sushi, soba, or grilled beef restaurants grate fresh wasabi at the counter, so customers can experience the acute assault on their nostrils and the unique flavor that lingers for just a moment on the tongue.”
Rich and Inoue prompted me to catch up on wasabi futures. And to perform taste tests with my $199.99 fresh wasabi, its $22.69 tube counterpart, and one of my gratis packets included with a previous sushi order.
In Part 2, we’ll see what I learned. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022