Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, February 28, 2013 / 12:00 PM

Lettuce Have a Little Water Now, Maybe? “Wasabi Arugula” is Hot, Hot, Hot

Lettuce Have a Little Water Now, Maybe? “Wasabi Arugula” is Hot, Hot, Hot

Ryan Mangialardo, head calzone-crimper at Sauce on the Side, has a secret. But if you’re nice, he will show you. Come back into the kitchen. Come closer. Yesssss, that’s right…

Come back to the cooler. Mangialardo reaches inside and pulls out a cardboard box. He opens the box and reveals a verdant green nest of…arugula.

But this is not just any arugula. The restaurateur bids you taste a leaf. At first, it has that familiar arugula bitterness. But wait two seconds, and Here. It Comes.

¡En fuego! Your tongue is on fire! This is a lettuce that burns like wasabi. This is “wasabi arugula,” a potent new boutique lettuce that Mangialardo is considering implanting within an Asian-themed calzone in coming months. It is surely the spiciest leaf in Christendom. In terms of potency, it makes the bay leaf taste like wheat grass.

It arrived at Sauce on the Side courtesy of a supplier, Kuna Foodservice of Dupo, Ill. Kuna’s produce buyer, Doug Conwell, said that wasabi arugula is new to this market and that Kuna is just beginning to send the wasabi arugula to local chefs to see if they’ll get a kick out of it (pun intended).

“Bad weather out west has the produce industry in turmoil,” said Conwell. “These days, getting your normal items can be a challenge, much less the new and exciting stuff.”

Kuna’s produce supplier, the grower and shipper of the wasabi arugula, is the mighty Church Brothers, a huge, vertically integrated farm operation in Salinas, California, a city often referred to as "the lettuce capital of the world."

How did they make this stuff? Did they actually cram together the DNA of a wasabi (horseradish) root and an arugula leaf?

Nope, said Church Bros. spokesman Ernst Van Eeghen.

“Wasabi arugula is a natural varietal, a non-GMO, designed through natural seed selection,” explained Van Eeghen. “That’s a long but simple process. You start with a couple of peppery arugula varieties and plant them, using different soil compositions and conditions, in say, 100 different ways. You keep the most spicy, peppery growths and learn which conditions were best. Then you know how to make the next batch even more spicy, and you keep going, generation after generation, until you get an arugula that tastes how you want.”

It’s spicy-hot, but the appellation “wasabi” is pure marketing. It’s simply arugula that has been cultivated to be nearly as intense in heat as wasabi. If they’d called it “spicy arugula” or “the devil’s arugula,” diners would taste the same heat, but might not necessarily think of wasabi. It could also pass for a hybrid of mustard seeds and arugula, for instance.

The wasabi arugula, which has been around for a couple of years in other markets, looks just like plain old arugula, but its flavor will knock you back. It’s best used to accent other dishes; you wouldn’t want to use a pound of it to make an arugula-cheese dip, for instance.

“You do not wanna eat a whole bowl of the stuff,” cautioned Van Eeghen.

Church Brothers is having fun with other unusual kinds of produce, said Van Eeghen. For instance, they’ve begun to mass-market a variety of heirloom red spinach (on salad below), introduced to markets last fall. Its striking purple-red hue is eye-catching. Look for it, too, in a restaurant near you.

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