Wasabi: A Visit to Its Birthplace in Shizuoka!
Mr. Yuma Mochizuki/望月佑真
The other day I received a phone call from my good friend Dominique Corby, the Chef/Manager of Michelin-starred 6eme Sens in Tokyo.
He told me that the French/German ARTE TV Channel was coming to Shizuoka City on September 12th~13th to make a long report on green tea (Shizuoka produces 45% of all green tea in Japan), wasabi (Shizuoka produces 80% of all wasabi in Japan) and the fishing industry in our Prefecture (they will visit the Fishing Harbour of Yaizu City)!
He wished to enroll my help to “prepare the ground” for the TV crew as I was not only living in Shizuoka City, but knew my wasabi well! He didn’t have to ask twice!
So on Thursday and Friday 12th and 13th, a third Musketeer, Stephane Danton of Ocharaka, a French specialist of green tea in Kanagawa Prefecture who exports green tea from Kawane Honcho in Shizuoka, joined us in a rented car and we left on a grand mission!
Utogi is also the starting point of some great treks!
We did spend the whole Thursday following Stephane in tea growing farming homes and communities as the rain just made it impossible to visit the wasabi fields in altitude!
So we left early in the morning on Friday from Shizuoka City in blistering heat.
The ride is not that hard, 18 km along the Abe River and 3 more km up in altitude, what with the beautiful vistas between high steep forested mountains.
We reached Utogi at around 11:00 a.am. where Mr. Yuma Mochizuki was already waiting for us.
One of Mr. Yuma Mochizuki’ wasabi fields.
Mr. Yuma Mochizuki is the 10th generation of a celebrated wasabi growing family.
He presently owns 5 fields dispersed on in the Utogi Mountains, and is trying to buy more land in Fujinomiya City as the demand is growing and that there is simply no space left in Utogi!
Wasabi grows in the wild and has been consumed as a vegetable for eons.
It is only in the beginning of the 17th Century that a farmer in Utogi succeeded in growing the root that is so appreciated in the world.
Roots of a small size will develop in the wild after 2 or 3 years, but they are too sour and “green” to be consumed at all. Although its cultivation is purely organic/macrobiotic it does need the help of a human hand.
Mr. Mochizuki first took us to his highest field at almost 1,000 metres (well over 300 feet) to an almost inaccessible locale among trees, steep slopes and up impossibly narrow and slippery “stairs”. But it was certainly worth it, although the TV crew will ot have to climb so high.
He then took us (all the time by car as walking was not much of an option what with the heat and the distance between fields) to the field that would appear on TV.
The whole field is covered with a black mesh net to protect it from too much exposure to the sun. These nets are streched over the field only when it is directly under the path of the sun. Some fields aren’t.
But all fields have to be protected with suplementary solid side nets to keep wild monkeys and deer away as they would leave nothing of the stems and leaves!
Wasabi seedlings have to be regularly replanted every one or two years depending upon the variety. There are axtually more than 100 varieties of them. Mr. Mochizuki grows ten of them.
The seedlings above had been replanted only one month ago.
Here is a “view” (from under the nets) of the upper part of that particular field with about one-year old wasabi plants in the background.
After 1 or 2 years the wasabi plant matures to almost one metre in height, root, stems and leaves included. Subsidiary plants will grow from the bottom of the main large root. These will be cut out to be replanted.
The large root will be harvested for the wasabi paste. The stems will be pickled in Japanese sake white lees to become “Wasabi Tsuke”, a delicacy one can use to season his/her bowl of freshly steamed rice with or with fish and fish paste. The leaves can be pickled too, although they are eminently edible raw, steamed or cooked. Shizuoka people use them as “vessels” to taste miso paste!
Only pure mountain water flowing at a constant temperature may be used in the culture of wasabi. Stagnant water is out of question.
Moreover, and this is a little known fact, individual field sections and fields in general do not communicate with each other. Water come through pipes directly connected to mountain streams to bring water to each field section. It is then diverted to side funnels which prevent any water to go back into another field!
True envirnomental and organic culture.
Apart of the bed sand and water, nothing else goes into those fields. Full stop!
Although Mr. Mochizuki was very busy preparing the big Festival to be held on Saturday and Sunday with the whole community, he kindly took the time to invite us to his enormous Japanese house (all sitting on tatami there) to share tea and sample his wasabi crop. We had the pleasure to meet his very gentle spouse and the energetic 11th generation Yoshihiro Mochizuki望月義弘!
Here are the best samples of 3 of the best out of the 10 varieties the Mochizuki family grows. Can you guess which is the best one?…
The one in the middle with the dark stems!
Now, where do you grate the stem from? The pointed end or the stem end?
Well, this is according to priorities, but usually after chopping the stems away fromthe root is first grated from the top as it will hotter as you come closer to its pointed extremity. This way you can control the “heat” of the root (or mix the whole later!).
Have you ever seen the cross section of a healthy root?
The traditional way to grate the wasabi root is on a wooden slat covered with shark skin.
Mr. Mochizuki explained this is now done only for the sake of tradition. Sushi and soba chefs will grate (away for the clients’ eyes) on a new and very efficient metal grater (in the background).
Look at that for extravagance!
Mr. Mochizuki was indeed so generous in his demonstration.
The TV crew will have a “field day”! LOL
MARU ICHI NOUEN/丸一置農園
(Yutogi Kodawari Club/有東木こだわり倶楽部)
Director: Yoshihiro Mochizuki/望月義弘
421-2303 Shizuoka Prefecture, Shizuoka City, Aoi Ku, Yutogi, 602
Tel./Fax: (81) (0)54-298-2077
Direct mail orders possible
Wasabi: All you need to know!
For all my agnosticism, I sometimes think I am blessed to be born in Dijon, Bourgogne, France and lived in Shizuoka City, the birthplace of Wasabi!
The sign at the entrance of Utogi, the birthplace of wasabi!
Around 1600, farmers in Utougi District, some 33 km from Shizuoka JR Station along the Abe River, first started experimenting with the culture of that particular plant, which they already knew as a wild vegetable used for pickling. At the time they were only processing the stems, leaves and flowers.
If you want to visit Utogi, where you will find a soba restaurant and other shops as well as the possibility of trekking and festivals watching in April and October, either go by car (55 minutes) or take a bus (Shizuoka JR Station/75 minutes). The trip along the Abe River is worth for its own sake with all the changing landscapes and vistas!
I did it by bicycle, but it took me 5 hours for the return-trip from the city centre and had to push the bicycle along forthe last 3 kilometres. Even a maoutain bike would have made it!
Another view of Utogi
Wasabi Monument in Utogi.
They even have their own “Mon/Arms”!
This is still a very popular kind of pickles in Shizuoka where they are sold in season.
In 1604, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Japanese Overlord/Shogun, who had just moved to Sumpu (presently Shizuoka City), grew extremely fond of the grated root and helped spread its use all over the country. Its present culture has expanded outside our Prefecture, especially in Nagano, but Shizuoka still produces not only 80% of the whole crop in Japan, and the best wasabi are grown in Utougi and in the Amagi Range in Izu Peninsula.
Tamaruya stand at Haneda Airport
The first and oldest wasabi shop, Tamaruya, is still very much in business in Shizuoka City and even has a stand in Haneda Airport, Shizuoka City!
Wasabi growing is backbreaking work. You need a constant temperature, so you have to be located at a certain altitude (weel over 1,000 metres in some cases) as extreme heat is not welcome, as well as extrem cold.
Pure, soft, constant water is a must. Shizuoka water is known as the best in Japan as demonstrated by its superlative (and rare) sake.
Fields need constant care during the two years it takes for roots to be mature. You can drink the water in these fields without any fear!
WASABI IN JAPANESE CUISINE
If you want to grate your own wasabi, you will need a grater.
The best (above) are made with shark skin!
Grated wasabi is the most common use for the plant, especially with sushi and sashimi.
But the stems, leaves and flowers are extensively used.
The leaves can be eaten raw and are great with miso!
The stems are a delicacy marinated in rice vinegar.
Wasabi zuke/wasabi stems and flowers pickled in sake kasu/sake white lees.
Wasabi zuke in Shizuoka is simply extravagant as the sake breweries sell their best white lees/sake kasu (after the sake has been pressed) to the local farmers and producers!
Soon I will post an interesting home-made recipe for wasabi zuke!
The same leaves, once pickled, can be included inside inari zushi for the pleasure of vegans!
Na no hana/rape flowers boiled and seasoned with wasabi mayonnaise.
Now, you might know it, but thinly sliced wasabi root is not as strong as grated wasabi. In Shizuoka, as it is not that expensive, try and ask your favourite sushi chef to cut it in very thin strips and roll as it is in a “maki”. It’s called “namida maki/tear maki” or “bakudan maki/bomb maki” (the real one, not the buster made with grated wasabi!). A favourite of mine!
Wasabi is getting more and more popular in French and other cuisines all over the world.
The above dish was created by Dominique Corby a great French Chef who learned his craft at the Tour d’Argent in Paris, among others, before coming to Japan to look after the kitchen of the Sakura Restaurant in the New Otani Hotel in Osaka and of the 6eme Sens in Tokyo.
His cuisine was created with whole wasabi (1 metre long!) i sent him by cool box from Shizuoka.
These are the best grown in Utogi. Very fat, clean, with no black marks and with enormous stems and leaves. Dominique steame the leaves and stems before serving them with fish seasoned with a wasabi sauce reduction from the roots!
Wasabi comes into many kinds of fancy food for the pleasure of all, young and old!
Wasabi soft Ice-cream!
Wasabi comes into a whole array of derivated products worth exploring:
Wasabi Dressing 1
Wasabi Dressing 2
Wasabi dressing is not that strong and can be used in cold and hot/warm dishes.
The Missus uses it extensively with dtir-fried veetables and meat.
Nori/seaweed and miso seasoned with wasabi is another great vegan seasoning!
Wasabi salt by Tamaruya!
Stewed wasabi by Tamaruya!
The only true wasabi shochu is made by Bandai Brewery in Shuzenji, Izu peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture! (don’t be fooled by unscrupulous producers/traders!).
-Wasabi is a natural medicinal herb as it contains big amounts of Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin B2 ad C.
-Combined with vinegar, or mustard, or ginger, helps combat fppd poisining, obesity and helps blood flow.
-Combined with Chinese cabbage, or cabbage, or yam, helps combat ulcers and cancer.
-Combine with onion, or leek, or galic chive, helps combat blood vessel ageaing and heart diseases, as well as preserve skin health.
-Combined with chili peppers, or umeboshi/Japanese pickled plums, or orange, or grapefruit, helps appetite and quick illness recovery, helps skin rejuvenation and helps combat ageing.
FOR RESIDENTS AND VISITORS IN SHIZUOKA CITY:
On every first Wednesday of the month, a small but very special fair is held in the basement of Isetan Store in Shizuoka City.
It is called “Shizuoka Utsurogi Ichiba” after a group of farmers residing and conducting business up Abe River in Shizuoka City, up to an altitude of 1,500 metres, around Utogi, the birthplace of wasabi, and still considered the best in the world.
Try to come as soon as Isetan opens as it can become quite a unashamed tussle with all these local grannies fighting for the best morsel!
All products on sale are purely local and practically devoid of industrial fertilizers. It is actually a paradise for vegetarians as only vegetables are represented there. A multitude of succulent and extravagant wasabi pickles, pickled plums, onions, etc.
The names, addresses and even phone numbers of the farmers are clearly stated, making all purchases eminently traceable.
But the pinnacle is some incredible fresh vegetables, including enormous fresh wasabi roots at ridiculously low prices. I grabbed tis couple of fresh bouquets of wasabi stems, leaves and flowers for my better half (worse?) who loves them as tempura or home-made pickles! I wonder what people in Tokyo would have to pay for that!
It is possible to travel up to Utogi and buy directly from the Farmers Cooperative at:
422–8031 Shizuoka City, Yumei Cho, 2-20