Growing wasabi in Iceland inside one of the world’s most innovative greenhouses
When Óli Hall dined at a sushi restaurant while visiting Boston recently, he brought his own wasabi. Hall, the sales and marketing director for Icelandic company Nordic Wasabi, knows that the small green dollop typically served alongside a tuna roll is usually just a mix of horseradish, mustard, and food dye. Real wasabi is just too expensive for most restaurants to keep in stock. But since he tried the real deal, he’s been spoiled for anything else.
“I can’t eat sushi unless I have my own fresh wasabi,” says Hall. “Once you go green, you can’t go back.”
Based in Egilsstaðir, on Iceland’s east coast, Nordic Wasabi was founded by Ragnar Atli Tómasson and Johan Sindri Hansen. The company cultivates wasabi from one of the world’s most advanced greenhouses—one that runs purely on sustainable energy. In 2015, the then engineering students at University of Iceland were enrolled in a business model class, and had never tasted real wasabi. By the end of the project, they founded Jurt Hydroponics to focus on growing it full time.
Wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, is a flowering plant, with a stem that can be grated to make a piquant paste—a condiment that’s most commonly served with sushi. Historically grown in riverbeds in Japan, it’s also notoriously one of the world’s most difficult and expensive plants to grow commercially. The process is time-consuming (plants can take up to three years to fully mature) and labor-intensive.
Because it requires a lot of clean water and controlled temperatures, cultivating the plant isn’t easily viable for greenhouses in continental Europe or the U.S., either, due to the high cost of water and heating. But Iceland, with its concentration of volcanoes, is one of the leading producers of geothermal energy in the world, i.e. a renewable energy source produced by naturally occurring heat under the earth’s surface.
Tómasson and Hansen designed a state-of-the-art greenhouse that uses 100% renewable hydroelectric powered electricity, and sustainable geothermal heat to warm the greenhouses in colder months. When the greenhouse needs to be cooled down, “most of the time, we just open up a window,” says Hall. The region’s average temperatures range from the low-twenties in winter to high fifties in the summer months. The water, also, is the same as the country’s drinking water, flowing up and filtered through its volcanic rocks. Plus, the computer-controlled greenhouse makes for less hands-on labor. “We have one horticulturist working in the greenhouse who takes care of their harvests,” says Tómasson. “Everything else is automated.”
In Iceland—a country of about 40,000 square miles, roughly the size of Colorado—there’s also plenty of room to grow. “The idea is that we have a big country, all running on renewable energy,” says Ragnar, adding that with a population of about 380,000 people, only roughly 30% of the country is inhabited, while about 70% is sparsely-populated Highlands. The company’s greenhouses have the capacity to grow a few tons of wasabi per year. Currently, one greenhouse is filled with wasabi plants, and another one next to it can double their harvest in the near future.
These unique conditions make sustainably growing wasabi easier, and it’s also made their product an impressive one. The company just won a nomination from EMBLA, the Nordic Food Awards for Nordic food producer of the year. And perhaps more importantly, the food world is paying attention. (After all, what good is a sustainable product if no one wants it?) Chefs all over Europe and Scandinavia are buying wasabi from the company, including the reigning world’s best restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, and the Icelandic cuisine-focused Moss Restaurant inside the Retreat at Blue Lagoon.
Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson, the executive chef of Blue Lagoon Iceland, is currently using Nordic Wasabi on both herring and Wagyu dishes. “We find that it’s a bit sweeter and less earthy,” he says, adding that it gives the meal a little bit of an extra kick. “We also like that the growing of the wasabi is very sustainable as they use clean mountain stream water, renewable hydroelectric power, and geothermal heating, which matches our ethos here at the Blue Lagoon.”
While the stellar wasabi grown in Japan can be both costly to export and scarce, and wasabi from other European growers might not be up to par, flavor-wise, “Japanese chefs and Michelin-starred chefs all around Europe are amazed at the product,” says Hall. “So we are bringing this product in that’s not only fully sustainable, it also just tastes really good.”
Besides restaurants, the company is selling direct to consumer, targeting home cooks with kits that come with a knob of wasabi stem, plus a grater and bamboo brush. Beyond sushi, they suggest adding the soft green paste to recipes from cocktails, ribeye, and even ice cream. From an outpost in downtown Reykjavík, they also offer “wasabi hour”—a fun workshop that educates tourists and visitors about fresh wasabi with food and drink pairings.
Jurt Hydroponics isn’t the only business tapping into Iceland’s 100% carbon-free energy; the country has collective appreciation for sustainability. Snorri Jonsson, founder of 64° Reykjavik Distillery, says “Sustainability is extremely important to our ideology in life and business.” Established in 2009, the first Icelandic distillery runs on 100% certified green energy to make spirits that use locally-foraged berries and botanics, including angelica seed, Arctic bilberry, crowberry, and juniper. This both reduces the carbon footprint from importing ingredients, and also just makes for a better quality of spirits like Einiberja gin and Crowberry liqueur.
Also using renewable geothermal energy, Björn Steinar Jónsson revived an ancient tradition of harvesting sea salt in the country when he founded Saltverk. Jónsson’s salt is an ingredient in some of the bean-to-bar chocolate from Omnom. The Reykjavík-based company co-founded by chef Kjartan Gíslason operates on renewable energy, while sustainability and transparency are key when sourcing ingredients for bars like Lakkrís + Sea Salt and Coffee + Milk bars.
While Tómasson and Hansen chose wasabi because it’s notoriously hard to grow, and could be exported to other markets in continental Europe for a high price per-kilo, Jurt Hydroponics greenhouses could grow other hard-to-grow crops that are viable for export.
“I think you can grow anything in Iceland,” says Tómasson. “People are always asking me about growing avocados. Maybe someday we will.”
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