What most people in the UK believe to be wasabi isn’t actually wasabi at all.

Normally only made using a few percent of the real stuff, the substance sold or served to us as wasabi paste, or perhaps more recently found sprinkled on scrumptious roasted pea snacks, is in actual fact made up almost entirely of horseradish, mustard and artificial green colourings. This intensely fiery substitute paste that can be found nestled beneath the raw fish on your nigiri Sushi, and which can be known to deliver a powerful nasal punch if not used sparingly, is actually worlds apart in flavour from the fresh wasabi plant it has been created to emulate. Which indeed begs the question… what on earth is real wasabi like?

Wasabi japonica, which can in a way be compared to Western horseradish – hence the presence of horseradish in the more familiar wasabi substitutes – is a rare mountain root plant­ that is extremely difficult to cultivate. Unless the conditions are absolutely perfect – the environment, the temperature, the cleanliness and volume of fresh running water, the exposure to directly sunlight (talk about a fussy vegetable!) – the wasabi root will not be able to thrive.

Prized for its antibacterial properties, wasabi is most commonly used as a condiment for sushi and sashimi, helping to protect the body against potential infection and food poisoning that can be caused by the consumption of raw fish.

The real stuff, although known to also deliver a spicy nasal kick, is much milder than its synthetic companion, and has a sweet aromatic aftertaste not found in the artificial paste. Fresh wasabi with its innate sweetness has a versatility that has yet to be explored in Western cuisine. In certain areas of Japan you will even be able to find wasabi flavoured ice cream – now that is something I would like to try!

For a long time it was thought that fresh wasabi could only be harvested in certain ‘climatic’ hot spots of Japan, like in the cool flowing spring river waters of the forested Amagi mountain area in Shizuoka-ken just south of Mt. Fuji. However, through the development of cultivation techniques, and of course many years of hard work, wasabi japonica can now be found growing in the UK.

Understandably passionate and adventurous, the UK based enterprise The Wasabi Company started trialling the ‘hard-to-source’ and characteristically temperamental root about 4 years ago on a secret farm in the South West of England. Since it takes wasabi japonica about 2 years before reaching full maturity, only recently has The Wasabi Company been able to harvest its first yield of fully developed specimen.

So if you find yourself pining for the sweet, slightly fiery, and uniquely aromatic flavour of fresh wasabi, you now know where to go; straight to The Wasabi Company’s secret farm, or to their conveniently ‘not so secret’ online store that can be found at www.thewasabicompany.co.uk.

Farmed Scottish Salmon for Sashimi and Sushi – No more freezing!

Great news! Farmed salmon produced in the UK no longer has to be frozen before we eat it as Sashimi and Sushi.  Why?  Because the EU recognised that the risk of parasites in Atlantic salmon farmed in the UK is negligible. (Atlantic salmon is what we usually see in fishmongers.)  After all, freezing was all to do with killing off potential parasites.  It’s officialised in the amendments to Regulation (EC) No 853/2004, introduced in late 2011. Steve Hardie of the Food Standards Agency in Scotland says “The previous EU freezing rules for fish intended to be eaten raw did not recognise the different risks associated with parasites in wild and farmed fish.  But we now have a specific freezing exemption for farmed fish that can be applied when certain criteria related to diet and production methods are met.”

So how did this change come about?

The EU regulations introduced back in 2006 required that fish for Sashimi and Sushi, i.e., fish to be consumed raw or nearly raw, must be frozen for more than 24 hours at certain temperatures.  This was to protect us from getting ill by eating the parasites that may come in with fish.  The parasite in the spotlight in this case is Anisakis. In Japan, the home of Sashimi and Sushi, it is left to the experienced eyes of Sushi chefs to check and select parasite free fish.  In Europe, there aren’t enough experienced Sushi chefs around so one can understand the EU trying to protect the public. But the Scottish salmon producers were confident that their farmed salmon wouldn’t have parasites because the feed given was controlled and sea pens where salmon are raised were maintained in such a way that the parasite risk was extremely low. The problem with freezing is that unless it is done properly, the quality of the fish is undermined and this means the farmed Scottish salmon could lose out their share of Sashimi and Sushi market. So the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation carried out a joint study with the Food Standard Agency Scotland to look at the risks from parasites in farmed salmon.

The outcome of the study was published in 2007 and concluded that the risks were minimal.

Steve continues “The study was included in a wider EU review of parasites in fishery products carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which confirmed the Scottish findings and led to the introduction of the EU freezing exemption for farmed fish in 2011”. Jamie Smith of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation says “All farmed Scottish salmon have the seal of approval that you can safely eat it raw without freezing.”   Jamie was the technical advisor to the study project looking into the parasite risks in farmed Scottish salmon.  “All salmon farmers in Scotland are directly or indirectly the members of the Organisation.  They abide by out Code of Practice for Finfish Aquaculture which ensures that they all follow certain methods of raising salmon which in return assures the parasite risk is kept negligible.  They all follow the standard procedures, which mean that any risks are kept to an absolute minimum.” So, it’s now down to traceability. If your fishmonger can prove that the salmon you are buying is from one of the Scottish salmon farmers, then you are perfectly fine to eat it raw, Sashimi or Sushi.

What about farmed salmon from other parts of the UK?

Rest assured, as long as they come from a farm whose farming method meets the exemption criteria, their salmon is also OK as Sashimi and Sushi.  Of course, it applies to all farmed salmon producers in the EU, too. It took nearly 5 years of hard work by those salmon producers of Scotland and the Food Standard Agency, plus other UK officials, to get the amendment in place.  They really deserve a huge pat on their shoulders.  Why don’t we show them our gratitude by making and enjoying yet another piece of sushi with that gorgeous farmed Scottish salmon, maybe with a glass of bubbly?

Kiyoko

Head Chef at YourSushi.co.uk