Wasabi is being grown in Northern Ireland commercially for first time
It's a quintessential ingredient in Japanese cooking. But now fiery and fragrant wasabi is being grown commercially in Northern Ireland for the first time. Wasabi Crop is a small business set up by Dr Sean Kitson, a scientific researcher, who started growing the plant, which is in short supply worldwide, close to Portadown in Co Armagh.
He decided to grow the plant, which comes from the same family as horseradish and mustard, after research led him to pinpoint the health benefits, that includes anti-inflammatory properties for joints and muscles.
Dr Kitson said: "It's a potent plant that has also been shown to help increase protection against bacterial infections in the body and mouth.
"Wasabi, furthermore, is rich in antioxidants that help to boost the immune system and can aid in removing harmful toxins from the body."
Dr Kitson began growing the plant in a huge polytunnel and using hydroponic techniques. He's now hoping to export the wasabi, made into a paste for serving with sushi, as well as the leaves.
The cultivation of wasabi is mostly done in Japan and gained popularity through the serving of sushi.
"It has an interesting botany and is known as wasabia japonica, part of the Brassica family, which also consists of horseradish mustard and cabbage," he said.
Demand for wasabi, particularly in Asia, is surging at a time when traditional suppliers in Japan are scaling back in production.
"The soil in Co Armagh is rich and fertile, capable of growing a wider variety of plants than is currently the case," he said.
"To many, this may seem a long time, but it does take two years to grow top quality wasabi rhizomes, as the stem is known to botanists. The good news is that leaves and stems will be for sale later this year."
Wasabi Crop is the only commercial grower in Ireland and is one of just a handful based outside Japan.
Dr Kitson has already attracted the attention of some top chefs and hopes to export the wasabi leaves and paste to Japan.
"Not only is wasabi a herb it is a medicinal plant providing health benefits due to its key component of allyl isothiocyanate which releases during the grating process," he said.
"The isothiocyanates enable wasabi to produce associated antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties.
"At Wasabi Crop, we have developed expertise through continuous chemistry to generate wasabi rhizomes, leaves and stems for all our customers."
Wasabi is similar in flavour and heat to its cousins horseradish and mustard, with the burning effect hitting the nasal cavity.