A far north Queensland chef, fed up with being unable to source high-quality, fresh ingredients, has managed to grow a potentially lucrative wasabi crop in a tropical rainforest.
The feat is remarkable because wasabia japonica is notoriously difficult to grow even in its preferred cool, misty climate in Japan.
Its rarity is why it is so expensive, selling for up to $400 per kilogram in Australia.
In fact, most sushi lovers would likely be shocked that they have not tasted real wasabi but rather an imitation made from horseradish and green food colouring.
Jamie Ah Gee and his wife Annie now have 80 plants growing within a shade-cloth greenhouse at their home in Kuranda, west of Cairns.
"We found it almost impossible to source fresh wasabi in Australia and if you can the price is ridiculously prohibitive," Mr Ah Gee said.
"When people told me that you couldn't grow it here, I just thought, 'challenge accepted'.
"We've now successfully grown wasabi and we've successfully propagated it so the future looks good for wasabi in the rainforest."
Top secret method
The only other commercial crop of Australian-grown wasabi is in Tasmania, a business which was acquired in 2016 for almost $3 million.
Mr Ah Gee was remaining tight-lipped on the method he had used to grow the Japanese plant in far north Queensland.
"I don't want to go into it too much but we're soil-born whereas the operation in Tasmania is hydroponic," he said.
The tropical crop is yet to be tested by a wet season but Mr Ah Gee was optimistic it would fare well.
"It loves water, it's actually a water-born plant and its natural habitat is on the banks of rivers and creeks where it's actually submerged in water full time, so it should do well," the former restaurateur said.
Crop expected to hit restaurant trade next year
It takes 18 months to two years for the plants to reach maturity, when a fine grater is used to make wasabi paste from the stalks.
Mr Ah Gee's plants are yet to mature but he said in the meantime, he was able to use the leaves and the leaf stems in salads, curries and pickled accompaniments and was expecting to be inundated by orders from local, high-end restaurants once the produce was ready for market.
"Wasabi sells anywhere from $250 to $400 a kilo for the fresh stem but the leaves can also sell for two to three dollars per leaf," Mr Ah Gee said.
"Most chefs who are familiar with real wasabi will probably fall over themselves to be able to get fresh, local wasabi within a reasonable time of it being harvested, so it's still potent and full of flavour.
"The fresh product doesn't even compare [to the imitations], it's actually a very different taste, it's more fruity, it still has a horseradish hit to it but it's a very different flavour."
Mr Ah Gee had not ruled out the prospect of selling wasabi to the Japanese, with Tokyo just an eight-hour flight from Cairns.
"The supply of wasabi doesn't even meet about 30 per cent of demand in Japan, so it's also very expensive there," he said.
"I just want to fill my own desire first, but you never know."ABC