story by Alison Clare Steingold
photo by Jack Wolford
If the closest you’ve had to real wasabi looks like a green blob of Play-Doh squeezed out of a tube, you might want to seek out Lance Yamashiro.
On his third-generation family farm 4,500 feet up in Volcano, Yamashiro has been cultivating the finicky rhizome since importing a lone Japanese plant (a $10,000 investment) to the Big Island ten years ago.
Numerous Hawai‘i growers have tried—and failed—to mimic the conditions offered by cool, terraced riverbeds of Japan; however, Yamashiro’s oasis is one of few select spots on Earth—Tasmania and Oregon among them—with the requisite microclimate and pollution-free water for the nearly impossible-to-grow crop. “We get almost 200 inches of rainfall annually,” Yamashiro explains. “We’re surrounded by old tree ferns and ‘ohi‘a trees—plenty of organic materials in our soil.”
With the root a prima donna among plants and its growing cycle tortoise-slow, Yamashiro is protective of his single-acre crop. “When I finally got it to grow, I realized I didn’t just want to market to anybody. With the length of growing time, I didn’t want to run out.” Regardless of the $50 to $100 per pound price tag, high-end restaurants—the only establishments Yamashiro currently supplies—clamor for the scarce delicacy.
“It’s the only wasabi we’ll use,” boasts chef David Patterson of Hotel Hana Maui’s farm-friendly Ka‘uiki restaurant. (Ditto for Kohala’s Sushi Rock.)
So if that incendiary condiment swirling in your shoyu isn’t authentic wasabi, what is it? Watered-down horseradish whipped with mustard and dyed pea-green.
But when Yamashiro’s wasabi is prepared at sushi bars, finely grated with traditional sharkskin, metal oroshigane or porcelain grinders, the gentle flavor of the fresh root emerges; beneath the fire, subtle vegetal notes of its cabbage cousin whisper.
“Since my wasabi plant is from Japan, it’s considered a ‘higher grade,’” Yamashiro says. “It’s not as hot as American horseradish; there’s a nice, mild flavor, and at the end, you have a pungent taste, like good wine.”
Thankfully for this pricey delicacy, a little goes a long way. HH
Available at: Kohala’s Sushi Rock, Hotel Hana-Maui, Mariott Hotels on Kaua‘i, Alan Wong’s and Prince Hotels