The popularity of sushi around the world has led more and more people to try this Japanese condiment, which is customarily served with sushi rolls, along with pickled ginger.
However, even if you’re a sushi lover, you’ve probably never had real wasabi.
Most of the wasabi sold outside Japan is a kind of imitated wasabi, called Western wasabi, that doesn’t include any of the original Wasabi Japonica rhizomes, and has a flavor that is hotter and lacks the subtleties of traditional wasabi.
In this article, we’ll look at what wasabi is, how it is made, what it tastes like, and how you can enjoy it for yourself.
What Is Wasabi?
Wasabi typically refers to a spicy green paste that is served with sushi.
In Japan, wasabi is made from the wasabi plant, Wasabi Japonica, and is often prepared fresh, less than 15 minutes before serving, at high-end restaurants.
This type of wasabi has a delicate and subtle flavor with a sharp heat that fades quickly and highlights rather than overwhelms the flavor of the fish in the sushi.
However, most people have only had “western wasabi” or “fake wasabi”, which is a mix of horseradish, mustard, green dye, and other ingredients intended to imitate the flavor of true wasabi.
Western, or fake wasabi, has more heat than the traditional Japanese variety, and a flavor that is less complex and subtle.
Most westerners, including big fans of sushi, have never had traditional or authentic wasabi, and enjoy the western version instead.
What Does Wasabi Look Like?
Wasabi is a thick and smooth light green paste.
You can usually find it on the side of your plate of sushi, next to some pickled ginger.
In a high-end restaurant, it may be added by the chef directly to each roll, especially for nigiri sushi, so that the balance of flavors is correct and the wasabi doesn’t overpower the taste of the fresh fish in the sushi rolls.
Western wasabi is very smooth and consistent, but Japanese wasabi is much more coarse and granular, with an authentic bright green color.
Types Of Wasabi
There are two major types of wasabi – the Japanese variety (Hon-wasabi) and the Western version (seiyo-wasabi).
When it comes to Japanese wasabi, there are two subvarieties depending on how the wasabi is grown.
Sawa-wasabi is grown in Japan’s cold rivers and streams, where the wasabi plant prefers to grow in and around running water.
Hatake-wasabi is another form of Hon-wasabi, using the same plant, but hatake-wasabi is grown in a field rather than in a river or stream.
This method of cultivation is popular both in Japan and abroad, where Hon-wasabi is cultivated, including in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Canada.
Where Does Wasabi Come From?
Wasabi comes from the Wasabi plant, which is native to Japan. This is also where wasabi paste, the condiment that is served with sushi, was originally invented and popularized.
Today, the wasabi plant is cultivated selectively outside of Japan, but the majority of wasabi sold and served in sushi restaurants around the world is an imitation made from horseradish, mustard, and other ingredients to create a similar flavor.
Why Is Real Wasabi So Rare Outside Of Japan?
The wasabi plant is a very interesting and fickle plant that is very specific about the climate it requires to grow.
True Japanese Wasabi, Wasabi Japonica, grows naturally in streams and river banks. It requires a lot of humidity, especially in the summer, and will only grow between 10 C and 16 C.
If the ground gets too cold in the winter or the conditions get too hot and dry in the summer, the plant dies. This makes it very hard to grow true wasabi on a commercial scale, for export.
However, there are still plenty of farmers willing to try it in areas where the climate is accommodating – in Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
It might be difficult and require a lot of care to get this fickle plant to grow, but as a result of the prestige of this ingredient and its scarcity on the market, 1 pound of true wasabi sells for more than $70.
True wasabi in Japan and abroad is typically enjoyed by grating it fresh.
It is customary to grate the wasabi finely by rubbing it on rough sharkskin to create a paste and serve it to be eaten within 15 minutes when it has the freshest and strongest flavor.
Unfortunately for sushi lovers, this wasabi is so expensive that you won’t find it in your take-out sushi order, or probably even at a nice restaurant, although true wasabi is served in some expensive sushi restaurants in areas where the plant can be successfully grown.
Is Wasabi Healthy?
Wasabi is a healthy condiment that is full of nutrients and antioxidants. Although you probably don’t eat a lot of wasabi in a single sitting, it is good to know that it is helpful rather than hurtful to your body.
Wasabi has antibacterial properties that help reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, including food poisoning.
This may be one of the reasons it became such a popular condiment to accompany sushi which features fresh fish.
Adding a bit of wasabi helps to combat the kind of bacteria that can make you sick. These antibacterial properties also help wasabi suppress h.pylori, a form of bacteria that leads to peptic ulcers.
Studies suggest that there are other health benefits to regularly eating wasabi, including reduced inflammation, weight loss, cancer prevention, and bone and brain health.
Don’t worry about adding a little extra wasabi to your California roll – it’s full of nutritious goodness.
Are There Dangers To Eating Wasabi?
If you eat a lot of wasabi, your mouth will feel like it’s on fire, your eyes will water profusely, and you probably won’t feel very good.
However, these sensations will pass after a few moments, and you will be fine. There are no known toxic effects to eating wasabi, and for most people, the worst thing that can happen to you from eating wasabi is a bit of unwanted heat.
Some people do have allergic reactions to wasabi.
However, due to the rarity of wasabi as a condiment outside of Japan, most of these allergic reactions are not actually to wasabi but to the green dye that is used in the horseradish-based western version of wasabi.
Both the Japanese and western versions of wasabi are quite safe with few side effects.
Wasabi Nutritional Value
|per 20g serving according to Nutritionvalue.org|
Quick Table: 3 Wasabi Taste Recipes
|Wasabi Mayo||7O||15 Minutes|
|Wasabitini Cocktail Recipe||162||30 Minutes|
|Wasabi Soy Chicken Wings||502||40 Minutes|
One of the first steps to using wasabi outside of adding it as a condiment to sushi is finding a new way to add it to foods.
Wasabi has a strong flavor that can make it overpowering, but combining wasabi with other ingredients to make mayo allows you to bring the flavor of wasabi to all kinds of other dishes.
You can use wasabi mayo on everything from sandwiches and tacos to salads and sushi rolls. It’s an even more versatile condiment that you can keep in your fridge to add an Asian wasabi kick to any dish you would use mayo in.
Wasabi mayo is also just amazing on regular sushi rolls.
Although adding the paste directly is more traditional, mayo is a great condiment for sushi in general and imparts a creamy richness that is perfect for California rolls.
Adding wasabi mayo brings the best of both worlds to your sushi experience.
Calories Per Serving: 7O
Preparation Time: 15 Minutes
You might never imagine that wasabi could be used to make a delicious cocktail, but the subtle heat of wasabi is the perfect complement to cooler flavors and creates a kick that is as exhilaratingly original as it is delicious.
This cocktail mixes the spice of wasabi with vodka and lime juice, to be served with cucumber slices and a slice of lime to garnish.
If you’re a fan of wasabi flavors and want a drink that will bring out the best in this ingredient, this cocktail recipe has got you covered.
Calories Per Serving: 162
Preparation Time: 30 Minutes
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Chicken wings are a perennial favorite at parties and special events, and they always benefit from the boldest and brightest flavors as sauces.
This Asian-inspired recipe for soya and wasabi chicken wings uses the heat of wasabi as well as its subtle flavors to make chicken wings that are both delicious and addictive.
If you’re a fan of chicken wings and wasabi, you can follow this recipe to make a batch of wings that will get rave reviews, and help you get your wasabi fix at the same time.
Calories Per Serving: 5O2
Preparation Time: 40 Minutes
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Wasabi Actually Spicy?
Real wasabi is spicy, but not as spicy as the horseradish-based western wasabi, and not in the way you might think.
If you’re thinking of “spicy foods”, you’re probably imagining the spice that comes from capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers that is responsible for the heat in most spicy foods.
This type of heat is felt on the tongue rather than the nose, and can sometimes last for quite a while.
Wasabi is spicy in a different way. This is because the heat in wasabi comes from a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, rather than capsaicin.
Although the experience is similar (if you eat a lot of it your face will turn red, you will,l sweat, etc), the heat in wasabi is experienced in the nose more than the tongue, fades faster than capsaicin, and is a slightly different experience.
Is Wasabi Sweet Or Spicy?
Real wasabi is fresh, green, and both sweet and spicy.
Western wasabi tends to be hotter and less sweet.
In either case, the sweetness in wasabi is subtle compared to the heat and the other flavors. Wasabi is more spicy than sweet.
Does Real Wasabi Taste Like Horseradish?
Authentic Japanese wasabi, made from Wasabi Japonica, does taste a bit like horseradish, but the two flavors are noticeably different.
Horseradish, mustard, and wasabi all belong to the same family and share some flavor characteristics, but that doesn’t mean they are interchangeable. Wasabi has a flavor all its own that is distinct from horseradish.
That’s why western wasabi doesn’t just substitute the Japanese wasabi plant with horseradish.
That would be a different product that would have a different taste. Instead, they try to simulate the taste of authentic wasabi by mixing horseradish, mustard, and other ingredients with a green dye that mimics the appearance of traditional wasabi.
Horseradish might be the closest thing we can find to the taste of wasabi, but that doesn’t mean they are the same.
Wasabi has its own flavor that is recognizably different from horseradish, described as greener, fresher, sweeter, and more subtle, with a lighter heat that fades faster than the heat that comes from horseradish.
Is It Rude To Mix Wasabi And Soya Sauce?
In Japanese cuisine, condiments are very important, and there is a certain etiquette to how they are used.
Although it is doubtful that anyone in your local Japanese restaurant will get offended by how you eat your sushi, traditionally mixing these two condiments – wasabi and soya sauce – is frowned upon, because they are intended to be eaten separately.
This practice, called wasabi joyu, frustrates Japanese chefs because, in their opinion, it ruins both ingredients.
Adding wasabi to soya sauce ruins the sauce, and also dampens and diminishes the flavor of the wasabi.
According to tradition, these flavors should be applied to food separately and never mixed.
However, if you enjoy mixing them, you can take some comfort that in a recent poll, more than 27% of Japanese respondents confessed that they do this regularly, with many of them being unaware that this was a “rule” at all.
Do Sushi Restaurants Use Real Wasabi?
The cost of real wasabi is prohibitively expensive for most restaurants. At around $200 a kilogram, it’s not the kind of ingredient you start throwing into plastic trays of grocery store sushi.
Even for restaurants with customers willing to pay top dollar, it can be hard to find a supplier since authentic, traditional wasabi is only grown in certain areas, typically in small quantities.
If you want to experience real wasabi, your best bet is to find a very high-end authentic Japanese restaurant, most likely in a major city, and ask about their wasabi.
Otherwise, you can always get on a plane and head to Japan, although you will still end up paying extra for the real stuff.
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