Have you ever wondered what that green spread sitting next to your sushi, soy sauce, and ginger is?
If you enjoy Japanese cuisine, you’ve likely seen wasabi prepared as a light green paste with nigiri sushi or sashimi cuts.
Here’s everything you need to know about this one-of-a-kind condiment, including its history, cultivation, and uses in Japanese cuisine and beyond.
What is Wasabi?
Sometimes called Japanese horseradish, wasabi is a rhizome from Japan and is related to turmeric, ginger, and lotus. It is most famously used as a condiment served along with traditional Japanese cuisines such as sushi and sashimi.
Sushi and wasabi go together like salt and pepper. With only one bite, the mouthwatering pea-green paste sears the nasal passages briefly with intense heat—a delightful blend of discomfort and pleasure.
Wasabi doesn’t typically make you seek a glass of water because it isn’t oil-based, but it may clear your sinuses and make your eyes wet.
The wasabi plant is challenging to grow because it demands what it wants. A typical Japanese horseradish plant takes roughly three years to mature completely. It can, nevertheless, become ill very rapidly, and if other plants or animals damage leaves, it could limit its development.
Wasabi is only grown in a few locations because of these challenges; these include the Japanese regions of Shizuoka, Iwatane, and Nagano, in addition to the Izu Peninsula.
The areas where wasabi is cultivated should be designed to look like the plant’s native habitat. For instance, the growing area must be covered in a lot of pebbles and gravel and withstand some flooding.
History of Wasabi
Japanese horseradish was unearthed a long time ago in a distant mountain village by a farmer who wanted to cultivate it based on Japanese folklore. He supposedly exhibited the crop for the region’s warlord, Tokugawa Leyasu. Leyasu, who would later become Shogun, deemed it a delicacy and decreed that it must only be cultivated in the Shizuoka region.
Only in the early 20th century did wasabi take on the form we are used to today. First, it was dried and pulverized to make a powdered variant. Shortly after this, manufacturers started making it from European horseradish.
Wasabi has been grown since the tenth century in Japan, and its cultivation has expanded to Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, China, and other countries.
However, as mentioned, this plant has a well-known reputation for being challenging to cultivate because it needs cold, pure water with the ideal mineral balance. Its finicky and demanding nature makes Japanese horseradish a rare and expensive condiment.
How is Wasabi Grown?
The plant is a rhizome, which means it features an underground network of stems that grows year after year and resembles a root system. Its pale green meat has a skin that is grayish green. The plant makes leaves on protracted stems from its crown and reaches a height of roughly 46 centimeters (18 inches).
Its leaves wither as it ages, and a rhizome, or creeping underground stem, develops. From this rhizome, new buds emerge as modified stems.
A handful of farmers have attempted to cultivate the plant outside of Japan, but most have failed. The Canadian grower Brian Oates is one exception; he developed a technique that allows Japanese horseradish to grow commercially today.
The rhizome is the component required to make wasabi paste. Whenever a customer orders sushi at a high-end establishment, the paste is formed by grating the stem with a grater; however, if the paste is left out in the open, it loses flavor within 15-20 minutes.
To maintain the taste of the wasabi until it is eaten, chefs typically place it between the fish and the rice when making sushi.
Alternatively, the condiment is offered in tubes or dried powder. Although Western wasabi, made of horseradish, typically has green dyes, genuine wasabi is naturally green.
Wasabi’s antibacterial capabilities may help protect Japanese sushi lovers. It has been found to contain an efficient antimicrobial agent against bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Due to this practical quality, Japanese scientists developed the idea of putting wasabi powder as a preservative inside lunches.
Japanese horseradish also has anti-cancer properties and can treat respiratory conditions, reduce inflammation, prevent gastrointestinal infections, promote good digestion, minimize arthritis, maintain a healthy heart, and aid the body’s detoxification process.
Other advantages include promoting weight loss and cutting down the process of aging. Additionally, the condiment appears to inhibit blood clotting and promote bone formation.
The fiber content and vitamin C are two nutrients that are abundant in Japanese horseradish. Also, it is an excellent source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, manganese, and potassium.
What is the Difference Between Real and Fake Wasabi?
Wasabi is easily accessible in Japan and can be found in foreign restaurants serving Japanese cuisine. However, even if you believe you have tasted it before, there’s a good possibility you have not. Many people have likely only ever had imitation or fake wasabi outside of Japan.
Seiya-wasabi is the Japanese name for European horseradish and for the condiment made from this plant. European horseradish is less expensive than Japanese and is used to make powdery fake “wasabi” and other imitation items, though some costly substitutes use a small amount of actual wasabi.
Naturally, preparing this condiment the old-fashioned way is much purer. You shred the rhizome like ginger until you get a good mound of shavings after washing it and trimming off any unattractive bits. After giving it a few minutes to settle, you can eat it with any dish to develop its flavor.
When Purchasing Wasabi, What Do I Look For?
Japanese horseradish is available in paste form in all the major supermarkets, but if you’d like to grate your own from the root, you’ll have to visit an Asian specialty shop. In the fresh vegetable section, search for the thick, solid rhizomes.
If you’re looking for wasabi powder or paste, you’ll probably find it in the condiment or global foods section. Examine the labels for a listing of ingredients that is relatively brief, but don’t be concerned if you don’t identify every word; wasabi is given preservatives to extend its shelf life.
Many brands also contain soybean oil to provide the condiment with a more uniform texture. Shoppers with soy allergies might want to stay away from those particular pastes.
However, bean-free substitutes are available, and soybean oil is unlikely to cause an allergic reaction in most people.
How Should I Store Wasabi?
This condiment can be kept in a cool, dry area in the cabinet alongside other items. Unopened paste containers may last for two to three years, and wasabi powder can be kept even longer.
After opening the container, store it in the refrigerator. You’ll have around a year or a little more to finish it.
The raw plant requires special care. It should be stored in the refrigerator immersed in a glass of chilled water, which needs to be changed daily. If you use this procedure, the Japanese horseradish will hold its freshness for up to two weeks.
What Makes Wasabi Hot?
The intense flavor of mustard, a typical component of your specific fast-food package or thin condiment tube, distinguishes cheap wasabi. The milder flavor of real Japanese horseradish makes it stand out. If wasabi starts “burning” on your tongue, your tongue is likely reacting to mustard powders rather than the actual plant.
A chemical material called allyl isothiocyanate, also found in mustard and European horseradish, gives wasabi its distinctive flavor. The original method for creating wasabi involves grating the root in a circular motion on a flat grater that functions as sandpaper to release the allyl isothiocyanate.
In comparison, chili pepper spice directly strikes the tongue and is made of the chemical compound capsaicin. Wasabi’s spiciness tends to burn the nose rather than mimicking cayenne or chili pepper’s tongue-focused heat.
Other Types of Wasabi Products
Because of the condiment’s tremendous popularity, wasabi-flavored products have popped up worldwide. No longer is the paste only served with sushi. Instead, you will find it in ice cream, chips, sake, beer, sweets, and many more products.
Unsurprisingly, not all products are as popular as the paste. Still, Japan has become renowned for producing a variety of wasabi-flavored foods.
Flavored chips are some of the most popular snacks that have hit the market. Lays was among the first to bring out wasabi-flavored chips, which offer a strong, short-lived hot flavor in contrast to other spicy chips created using chili powder or spicy sauce.
The same is true for the famous wasabi-flavored nuts, which include almonds and peanuts. Since some companies cover the entire nut with flavoring, they have an extremely potent taste.
Some other wasabi-flavored products to try include:
What Does Japanese Horseradish Taste Like?
Wasabi has a distinct flavor that makes it challenging to compare to other foods. It tastes hot and fresh. Although much spicier than yellow mustard, the two condiments are somewhat comparable because they are both members of the mustard family.
It’s fascinating to note that you’ll almost definitely taste the spice through your nose instead of on your tongue. You should be able to feel the bite of the condiment when it enters your nose and spreads throughout your entire head. This happens because fumes release a large portion of the taste and spice.
The flavor and aroma may seem entirely novel and distinctive to non-Japanese people. Still, if the paste is consumed with the appropriate cuisine, people will grow to enjoy it. For example, sushi and Japanese horseradish are a match made in heaven.
What is the Correct Way to Eat Wasabi?
At high-end restaurants, the more conventional method of eating wasabi involves placing sushi into a little soy sauce and spreading some wasabi on the fish’s middle either with your fingertips or chopsticks. Wasabi is always sandwiched between rice and fish at upscale restaurants, so you don’t need any extra.
Another essential thing to note at these restaurants is that sushi pieces are eaten whole rather than bitten. That is why sushi is made in a one-bite size.
If you are not at a fancy establishment, the best approach is to dip one edge in soy sauce, top the other with a dot of wasabi, and then place the sushi in your mouth.
Whether genuine or fake, individuals who appreciate the spiciness that wasabi adds to the taste mix will enjoy ingesting the condiment in a broader variety of ways than just as a side to sushi. Try adding it to Japanese soba or a buckwheat noodles dish.
The stronger-flavored, more affordable variety of horseradish can be combined with mild or sweet vinegar to create a delicious, light dressing. For a more robust flavor, use Japanese horseradish instead of mustard when making sandwiches. Wasabi can also be used for soups, stews, and sauces; it will brighten up any dish you want to make.
Pro Tip: Don’t Mix It Into Your Soy Sauce!
Although putting ginger into your sushi or adding wasabi pieces to your soy sauce won’t get you kicked out of upscale restaurants, doing so may be seen as disrespectful to your chef. The flavors of both the wasabi and the soy sauce are altered when combined.
Sushi chefs make soy sauce to go with the sushi they are feeding you. In fancy restaurants, soy sauce is freshly prepared and not taken from the bottle on your tabletop. Adding wasabi ruins the flavor and diminishes the hard work of preparing your meal.
Now that you understand this fantastic condiment better, you’ll indeed have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into tending and cultivating Japanese horseradish. A wasabi plant can only be grown under ideal conditions, making the condiment extremely rare and pricey.
However, even if you are forced to go for fake wasabi to obtain a spicy, mustardy punch, this unique paste will always be an excellent choice.
Wasabi is not as strange or exotic as Westerners may think, despite its image as an unusual condiment that some consumers prefer to shun. As a relative of horseradish and mustard, it’s just one more condiment that everyone should experience at some point in their lives.
Once you’ve learned how to consume it properly, you’ll appreciate how wasabi can brighten up just about any meal.