Oregon Coast Wasabi
By Jon Lewis
Spice Is Nice
Story by Jon Lewis
Photos by Steven Shomler
JENNIFER BLOESER HAS some surprising news for sushi fans everywhere: that mint-green paste with the power to clear the sinuses with a single dollop probably isn’t wasabi.
As the CEO and cofounder of Oregon Coast Wasabi – Oregon’s only commercial wasabi grower and one of a half-dozen producers in the country – Bloeser knows the difference between fake wasabi and the real deal. Together with her husband, Markus Mead, Bloeser is working to make others aware of the difference, too.
The paste commonly served at American restaurants is a blend of horseradish, mustard, starch and green food coloring. Bloeser says real wasabi has a considerably more complex and vegetal flavor, similar to asparagus or artichoke hearts, with a pungent kick to make flavors pop.
“The fake stuff is modeled after real wasabi, it’s just missing all those other nice flavors,” she says. Fresh wasabi, which is grated into a paste just prior to serving, goes well with steak, chicken, oysters and other protein; white sauces; mashed potatoes; salad dressings; noodle dishes; and, of course, sushi.
“Chefs are experimenting with it. It goes with just about anything if you like a little spice. It’s a flavor enhancer like salt or butter. People tell us they’ve made cheese with it, all sorts of fun things. And it’s killer in Bloody Marys,” Bloeser says.
Oregon Coast Wasabi grows wasabi plants in greenhouses near Tillamook, Ore. The plants are rooted in gravel beds and watered from overhead emitters. They are slow growers and it takes about 24 months before the root stalk, or rhizome, is large enough for harvest. In the interim, the large leaves and leaf stalks can be harvested every couple of weeks.
While the rhizome is where the action is, all parts of the plant are edible. The leafy greens “are wonderful fresh, just chopped up in a salad or steamed like kale. I have someone who likes to put it in lasagna or substitute it for spinach in panakopita. They have a nice little spice but not overwhelming. The raw leaves have a little tingle, but if you juice them, they are potent,” Bloeser says.
Wasabi grows naturally in stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan. Researchers believe the Japanese were first attracted to the plant for its anti-bacterial and anti-parasitical properties that helped protect against food poisoning when eating sashimi, or raw fish.
Wasabi is also believed to help prevent certain cancers, fight bacterial infections, reduce cardiovascular disease and ward off pathogens that cause influenza and pneumonia. “It actually was used as payment for taxes for a long time (in Japan) because it was so valuable as a medicinal component,” Bloeser says.
Bloesser was introduced to wasabi in 2003 when she attended an equestrian event in her native Pennsylvania and somebody was giving away wasabi plants. An avid gardener since she was a child, Bloeser accepted a couple plants and started growing them. “It kind of just mushroomed – or snowballed,” she says with a laugh.
Her interest in wasabi continued when she relocated to California’s North Coast for graduate school at Humboldt State University. She moved to Portland after meeting Markus, her future husband, and then some property became available on the coast. “It’s a similar climate to Japan. The fog on the coast and the cooler temperatures are great for the plants,” she says.
They have operated Oregon Coast Wasabi for 10 years now and plan to grow the business and expand production. “People want wasabi,” she says. Their customer list includes chefs across the country, specialty stores – a chocolatier with Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago recently ordered some wasabi to use in dark chocolate wasabi truffles – and individuals interested in fresh wasabi.
Oregon Coast Wasabi’s virtual store sells wasabi rhizome by weight, starting at a quarter-pound, or enough for a dinner party. If kept damp and refrigerated, the rhizome will keep for about two months. Once the rhizome is grated into a paste, wasabi’s unique (and volatile) molecular compounds will lose their heat within 30 minutes, so Bloeser says it’s best to grate the rhizome just before serving.
Leaves and stalks are also sold by weight. Plant starts and growing instructions also are available. Bloeser says wasabi plants can be grown in the garden as long as they have full shade. The plants do well in pots with quality, well-drained potting soil. “It’s kind of finicky at scale, but in the garden, it’s pretty hardy.” •