“The original idea came to us after a course in innovation at the University of Iceland. We wanted to use Iceland’s natural resources to create an export product,” says Johan Sindri Hansen. He and his childhood friend Ragnar Atli Tomasson grow wasabi in a high tech greenhouse in Egilsstadir, East Iceland, under the brand name Nordic Wasabi. Sindri, as he’s called, explains that few people eat authentic wasabi but rather a substitute of horseradish, mustard and food colouring. “After completing our studies we founded the company, found investors and started growing. We wanted to offer true wasabi, because it’s kind of like steak compared to sausagemeat.”
Wasabi originates from Japan where it grows naturally in mountainous regions along riverbanks, sheltered by tall trees. So cultivating wasabi in different climates is quite the challenge. After planting, it can take up to 18 months until it can be harvested. “The plant has not been domesticated much, unlike tomatoes and cucumbers, which have been cultivated for at least 200–300 years. We therefore have to imitate its natural environment, which is the hardest part,” Sindri explains.
According to a Japanese tradition, the stalk – which has a natural green colour – is grated on shark skin shortly before it’s served. The flavour starts fading approximately 20 minutes after the stalk has been turned to mush. The strong flavour certainly comes through, but then the heat becomes less dominant, leaving behind mild and earthy tones.
East Icelandic caterers have welcomed the new “local” herb. At Lake Hotel Egilsstadir I tasted wasabi ice cream, which may be considered an odd combination but something everyone should try. Austri Brewery makes a double IPA brewed with wasabi leaves, and the chefs at Nord Austur in Seydisfjordur and the bistro at Vok Baths serve fresh wasabi with their sushi. “Our future goal is to be leading in the export and sale of wasabi in Europe and North America and to make Egilsstadir the European wasabi capital. We could even rename it Wasabi-stadir!” Sindri jokes.
Text: Oli Finnsson. Photos: Nordic Wasabi