Iceland is known for terrifyingly beautiful nature, moody weather, the northern lights and—from now on—for growing fresh wasabi. Ragnar Atli Tómasson and Johan Sindri Hansen are local wasabi wizards, commercially cultivating wasabi likely for the first time in Europe (outside of the UK) under the company name of Jurt.
“We started in 2015, when we were studying engineering at the University of Iceland,” says Sindri. “We wanted to make an export product for Iceland, that would really utilise the resources that we have here—the clean environment, the water and the energy.”
Most expensive vegetable
Notorious as the “world’s most difficult plant to grow”—and the most expensive vegetable, by weight—wasabi grows in the river beds of Japan. It’s sensitive, and disease-prone, so I was curious about why these novice farmers chose this particular challenge.
“We heard about the ‘wasabi scam,’” says Sindri. “95% of the wasabi we get is made of horseradish, green food colouring and mustard. It’s really inauthentic. That was exciting, and we thought, ‘Why not wasabi?’”
“Wasabi is hard to grow, but it has the potential for export, and smaller volumes for a higher price,” adds Ragnar. “It’s hard to get wasabi plants, but we managed eventually. We get the plants from Japan under special licenses, and we’re working with the University of Iceland cloning plants to develop a local variant—a purely Icelandic, disease-free wasabi plant.’’
Jurt is growing wasabi using hydroponics, in the spirit of the Japanese water growing tradition of sawa, an intensive and laborious process. Ragnar and Sindri currently have a 2,000-square-metre, fully automated, climate controlled farm in Egilsstaðir. The wasabi plants takes 24-36 months to mature, and this year is the company’s first harvest.
What is Wasabi?
Contrary to popular belief, wasabi is harvested for its stem, although the entire plant, barring the root, is edible. The fresh stem is traditionally grated on a sharkskin paddle, forming a pale celadon-green paste. The volatile flavonoids are fresh for up to 15 minutes—one reason why high-end restaurants grate wasabi table-side, as proof of authenticity and for maximum flavour.
To experience the thrill and decadence of authentic wasabi, I dined at Grill Market and Fish Market, currently the only restaurants serving Jurt’s wasabi. The chef passed around the stem—no bigger than my palm, like a knobbly radish. One whiff, and that signature pungency cleared my head, jolting me awake. The grated wasabi is wetter than horseradish, and holds its shape well. The sweet first note is followed by a boom of instantaneous, short-lived spicy hotness, then a lingering sweetness. It’s delicate, more grassy and herbal than the imposter version.
Shocked and furious
I urge hotheads and others alike to try the steak at Grill Market with Icelandic wasabi and request soy dipping sauce. Or, purists can find comfort in the sashimi platter at Fish Market. Remember to wash it all down with the stellar Wasabi Mule.
I press for a parting shot, and Ragnar smiles. “Everyone knows the word ‘wasabi,’ so they know what it is. People are genuinely shocked, even furious, when we tell them they’ve been eating fake wasabi.” And Sindri adds, “We’ve been notorious for ruining people’s sushi experience.”
Thanks to Jurt, fixing years of wasabi-betrayal is easy now. Is there anything Iceland cannot do?