Wasabi, the spicy condiment with a distinctive flavour, is a staple of Japanese cuisine. But have you ever wondered where it comes from?
Contrary to popular belief, true wasabi is not easily available outside Japan. Most of the “wasabi” you find in restaurants and supermarkets is actually a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring. Real wasabi, on the other hand, is made from the rhizome of the wasabi plant.
The History of Wasabi
Wasabi has been used in Japan for over a thousand years, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it became popular as a condiment for sushi. Before then, it was primarily used for medicinal purposes as it was believed to have antibacterial properties.
The cultivation of wasabi was initially difficult due to its delicate nature. The plant grows best in cool and shady areas, and cannot withstand direct sunlight or high temperatures. This makes it difficult to grow on a large scale, and is one of the reasons why true wasabi is so expensive.
Where is Wasabi Grown?
The vast majority of wasabi is grown in Japan, particularly in the mountainous regions of the country. These areas provide the ideal conditions for wasabi cultivation, with a cool climate and well-draining soil.
In recent years, other countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan, and the United States have attempted to cultivate wasabi, but the quality of their wasabi has not yet matched the standards of the Japanese crop.
The Wasabi Plant
The wasabi plant (Wasabia japonica) is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes mustard, horseradish, and broccoli. The rhizome of the wasabi plant is what is typically used to make the paste that we know as wasabi.
The rhizome is harvested when the plant is around 18 months old, and is then grated into a paste. The fresh paste has a distinctive bright green color, and a pungent aroma which is less harsh than that of horseradish.
The Production of Wasabi
Producing true wasabi is an art form that requires patience and attention to detail. The rhizome must be carefully harvested, washed, and grated to ensure that the paste remains fresh and flavorful.
One of the challenges of producing true wasabi is that the plant doesn’t store well. Once it is grated, the paste must be served immediately or it will lose its flavor and color.
Wasabi vs. Horseradish
Many people have mistaken horseradish for wasabi due to their similar taste and appearance. However, there are a few key differences between the two that set them apart.
- Horseradish is more pungent and harsh than wasabi, and can often be too strong to eat in large amounts.
- Wasabi has a bright green color, while horseradish is typically white or beige.
- Horseradish can be grown in a wider range of climates and is therefore a more readily available crop.
Using Wasabi in Cooking
Wasabi is a popular condiment in Japanese cuisine, particularly with sushi and sashimi. It is typically served as a paste, and is often mixed with soy sauce to create a dipping sauce.
Due to its unique flavor, wasabi can also be used as a versatile ingredient in other recipes. It can be mixed into mayonnaise or sour cream to create a flavorful dip, or added to salad dressings for an extra kick.
The Cost of True Wasabi
As mentioned earlier, true wasabi is difficult to cultivate and store, which makes it one of the most expensive crops in the world. In Japan, a kilogram of fresh wasabi can fetch prices of up to $250.
Outside of Japan, prices for true wasabi are even higher due to the cost of transporting and storing the delicate crop. This has led many restaurants and supermarkets to use horseradish, mustard, and food coloring as a substitute for true wasabi.
Is Fake Wasabi Harmful?
While fake wasabi may not have the same flavor profile as true wasabi, it is not harmful to consume. The ingredients used to create fake wasabi are safe for consumption, and are often used in other foods.
However, it is worth noting that some people may have an allergic reaction to the ingredients in fake wasabi. If you have a known allergy to horseradish or mustard, be sure to check the label before consuming any products that contain fake wasabi.
True wasabi is a rare and expensive delicacy with a rich history in Japanese cuisine. While it may not be easily available outside of Japan, it is worth seeking out if you have the opportunity to try it.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is wasabi made from? Wasabi is made from the rhizome of the wasabi plant. Most “wasabi” products outside of Japan are actually made from a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring.
- What does wasabi taste like? Wasabi has a distinctive flavor that is both spicy and slightly sweet. It is less harsh than horseradish, with a bright green color and a pungent aroma.
- Is fake wasabi harmful? No, fake wasabi is not harmful to consume. However, some people may have an allergic reaction to the ingredients in fake wasabi.