Wasabi – that familiar green blob on the corner of every sushi plate – has many more uses beyond seasoning raw seafood.
Wasabi: It’s spicy and it flavors sushi. That’s all that most of us know about this green vegetable. It is also possible that you have never actually eaten real wasabi. I don’t think I have, even though I’m fond of sushi and have eaten at countless Japanese restaurants. That’s because wasabi is notoriously difficult to grow and requires a very specific type of climate. Western wasabi – and much of the wasabi eaten in Japan, for that matter – is actually horseradish mixed with a little mustard and food coloring.
True wasabi is a low-growing plant that grows wild in streambeds in the mountainous regions of Japan. When the leaves of the wasabi plant are trimmed off a root-like stem remains. This stem is ground (traditionally against a piece of dried sharkskin), creating a smooth paste. This paste must be eaten fast, because wasabi looses its spicy and grassy flavor quickly.
There are only a handful of farms growing wasabi in North America, located in the Pacific Northwest and the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Wasabi seedlings are fickle, and the plants take years to reach maturity. Whole fresh wasabi doesn’t have much of a shelf life (it must be shipped on ice), and grated wasabi has even less.
These factors make true wasabi very expensive. And since western palates are so accustomed to western wasabi (true wasabi wasn’t grown in North America until the mid-1990s), restaurants have little incentive to offer the real thing.
Thus, for the rest of this post, when I write about wasabi, I’m talking about the stuff that comes either powdered or in a tube. Even though the packaging might have Japanese characters on it, the first ingredient almost certainly will be “horseradish.”
Just because the wasabi we eat isn’t authentic doesn’t mean it can’t be a great cooking ingredient. There are lots of fantastic recipes with wasabi. I also wanted to learn more about the different types of wasabi that are available to the American consumer. I tasted powdered wasabi, tube wasabi, and I tried making my own fresh wasabi.