Shima Wasabi Tasmania
AROMATIC: Fresh wasabi stem offers a 'rising heat' that accentuates the flavour of meat, fish and other fresh produce. IMAGE: Lily Moeller
Fusing centuries of Japanese tradition with Tasmania's cool climate and plentiful rainfall, Shima Wasabi is at the forefront of growing genuine Wasabi Japonica. The only commercial wasabi grower in Australia, Shima Wasabi was established in 2001 by locals Stephen and Karen Welsh before being snapped up by TasFoods in 2016 for $3 million. Since then, with renewed capital and increased marketing expertise, the gourmet food business has gone from strength to strength - increasing demand for product both internationally and domestically. The farm is still run at a relatively small-scale with the help of a dedicated team who are passionate about the art of growing this exhilarating plant. The team includes operations manager Esme Atkinson who oversees seven workers across two large greenhouses which have a combined capacity of up to 10,000 wasabi plants. Traditionally grown along stream beds in mountain rivers of Japan, the evergreen perennial is thriving in northern Tasmania. "Tasmania's cool climate is ideal for growing wasabi," Esme said. "The plant is grown in temperature regulated greenhouses so we are able to largely mitigate against weather fluctuations."
Minimising environmental impact during production, the greenhouses collect and store rainwater for year-round use on the crops, while harvest waste is mitigated by using the whole plant - leaves, stems, stalks and flowers. These fresh components are then graded and any which don't meet Shima Wasabi's highest standard for restaurants are used in pure paste and powder products. "We are constantly tasting our product to ensure that the wasabi is consistently perfect in flavour and taste," Esme said. Shima Wasabi have devoted themselves to making genuine wasabi products, readily available to people around Australia. Notoriously rare and difficult to plant, grow and harvest, Esme said the 'wasabi' many of us have grown up with is often a substitute made from horseradish, sugar, salt and green food colouring. "Our mission is to re-educate consumers," Esme said, adding the greatest challenge is "debunking the myth that wasabi is just a condiment for sushi or sashimi". "The leaves, stems and stalks have so many exciting uses. "We would love to see this incredible product become a stalwart of the Australian dinner table." Recently relaunching their online store, Shima Wasabi has created a space for foodies to begin their own 'flavour journey' by purchasing products directly from the source. "We are proud to sell all of our products online including fresh wasabi stem and leaves, along with jars of paste and powder." Grown year-round, the carefully cultivated crop offers a myriad of potential health benefits, combined with an incredible flavour. "A typical day will involve picking wasabi leaves and harvesting wasabi stems and preparing them for our customers," Esme said. "We aim to ensure that our wasabi products are as fresh as possible when they are received by restaurants around Australia. For this reason we harvest only what is needed on a daily basis."
Clean and green
Highly susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases, Shima Wasabi has chosen to take an integrated pest management approach by utilising biological controls during warmer months to keep the crop at peek health leading into winter. "This significantly reduces the need for any chemical applications and helps balance the crop ecosystems," Esme said, adding the harvest process was a labour intensive, manual process. "No machinery is involved. Instead, wasabi stems are individually harvested using a knife and then expertly trimmed and cleaned to create a beautiful stem that high-end restaurants can showcase." Currently harvesting and selling about 1000kg of stem and upwards of 500,000 leaves annually, Shima Wasabi is slowly expanding to meet the increase in demand with the company in talks to begin supplying to supermarket chains in the near future. "We are fortunate to be able to harvest wasabi stems and leaves all year round," Esme said, adding she feels "incredibly lucky" to work with such a unique plant. "Being able to educate people about wasabi and the many ways to use this plant is always rewarding."
*First published July 2022 for Tasmanian Farmer Newspaper - owned by Australian Community Media.