Green Gold Grown by the Coast
Story by Carolyn Jung
Photos by Stewart Putney
Fresh wasabi is not easy to grow. It takes skill, fortitude and endless perseverance. That’s why in all of North America there are only a handful of farms that cultivate this nobby-looking Japanese rhizome, not the faux mash-up paste of horseradish, mustard and green dye most familiar to us at run-of-the-mill sushi bars.
Now comes what’s believed to be the only grower in California of this rare ingredient: Half Moon Bay Wasabi Farm.
It was started by a most unlikely duo: a pair of electricians with a crazy dream and a penchant for sushi, who funded their own venture and do all the cultivation and harvesting themselves.
Jeff Roller, 40, of Oakland, and Tim Hall, 44, of San Francisco, still maintain day jobs as electricians in the East Bay. But they regularly drive over to the brisk coast of Half Moon Bay, where their first crop of wasabi was harvested this past summer.
“Tim only told me a year before we started growing wasabi that what I’d been eating at sushi restaurants was fake,’’ Roller says.
“At work, I’d pass by him and each time I’d give him a new fact about wasabi,’’ Hall says with a chuckle.
“He’s always got ideas. I thought he was crazy at first,’’ Roller says. “But then, trying to grow it started to seem like a neat thing to do. Plus, there was the challenge. Everyone said it was one of the hardest things to grow. I thought, ‘Let’s find out. Let’s do something stupid.’”
Or, as it turned out in their case, something whip smart.
An In-Demand Product
Half Moon Bay Wasabi, which grows its product in three once-abandoned greenhouses, now sells all that it produces—about 20 pounds per week. Japanese specialty seafood supplier IMP Foods in Hayward distributes nearly all of it to Japanese restaurants—most of them in the Bay Area, but a few in Los Angeles and New York. The farm also plans to sell its wasabi online at www.HMBWasabi.com.
Additionally, Roller and Hall hand-deliver a small portion of their crop regularly to Bar Tartine in San Francisco, where acclaimed Chef Nicholas Balla can’t get enough of it. Balla, who apprenticed extensively in Japan, first got wind of the farm this past summer when he happened upon its Facebook page. Within five minutes, he was messaging the farm to try some. Now, he uses it in dishes such as beef tartare served with pickled wasabi stems, julienned wasabi leaves and freshly grated wasabi rhizome.
Indeed, the whole plant is edible, including its gracefully rounded leaves, which taste like kicked-up mustard greens. If you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting real wasabi, it’s a true treat. While fake wasabi has nasal-blasting, lingering heat and a sometimes metallic taste, the real stuff packs a gentler punch that dissipates quickly into a lovely, subtle floral sweetness. Hall and Roller say the best way to enjoy it is to grate it, wait five minutes for its heat and flavor to peak, then use it up within 20 minutes before its bite fades.
“Their wasabi has really good flavor,’’ Balla says. “It’s not super-hot, which I don’t think is a most desired quality. We’ve had an overwhelming response to it since putting it on the menu.’’
Balla pays a pretty penny for it—upwards of $16 per pound for premium leaves and stems, and $88 per pound for the large rhizomes—but is convinced it’s worth it.
A Challenging Start
The hefty price reflects how exceedingly difficult it is to grow. Wasabi takes two years to reach maturity after planting. Hall and Roller started their first plantings nearly three years ago. They lost one entire greenhouse at the start. Even now, they still lose plants all the time.
“It’s a lot easier to kill wasabi than to grow it,’’ Hall says.
“We grow the plants great, but then they seem to hit a midlife crisis,’’ Roller adds.
“It’s like you have to buy them a race car to keep them happy,’’ Hall jokes.
It’s taken a lot of fits and starts along the way for them to understand this finicky plant. Wasabi likes very cold water and little sun, and grows well in a mixture of sand, gravel and soil.
Their goal is to expand the business to the point that they can move their families to Half Moon Bay, give up their day jobs and “only do electrical work on our own houses.’’
After all, as Hall muses while tending to the plants one morning, “When it’s cold out here, you have to dream to keep warm.’’
Carolyn Jung is a James Beard Award–winning food writer based in Silicon Valley. Her work appears in local, national and international publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Food Arts, Wine Spectator and Via magazine. She is also the creator of the award-winning blog FoodGal.com. Look for her debut cookbook, San Francisco Chef’s Table.