If you are a fan of Sushi or Sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish served as an appetizer in Japanese meals), then you are familiar with the familiar green paste with the firery taste. This is wasabi, and it is used to add a bit (ok, a lot) of spice to your rice-wrapped meal. But what is it? Is it a mashed vegetable or some man-made concoction? Do you really want to know what you are adding to your sushi? Here are five things you may not have known about this spicy accessory.
What Is Wasabi?
Wasabi is a root that is grown in Japan, Asia, New Zealand, and some parts of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. It is notoriously hard to grow and is often called “Japanese Horseradish”. While it is a root, Wasabi is a member of the watercress family, not horseradish. It typically grows along stream beds and river valleys.
Will the Real Wasabi Please Stand Up?
Because of the difficulty to acquire true Wasabi (also known as Wasabi Japonica), the stuff that we eat in the U.S. is usually real horseradish mixed with green food coloring, mustard and soy sauce.
Buying Real Wasabi
The root is typically sold in its natural form and is extremely expensive ($70-$100/pound). The root must be grown under a constant stream of cool water and nurtured in the shade. Mild climates are best for this difficult little plant. When fully grown, the Wasabi root is around six inches in length. It takes about 18 months to reach maturity. If you are interested in purchasing Wasabi, it can easily be found online.
Make Your Own Wasabi
To prepare Wasabi, you must cut the scales and knobs off the root, then grate the root in a circular motion with a lemon zester or preferably a sharkskin grater. Special care must be made to keep the gratings from losing its flavor. Professional Wasabi chefs will often put the Wasabi between the rice and the fish to keep the flavor from evaporating. Freshly grated Wasabi will be gathered into a ball and allowed to sit for a few minutes to gain heat and enhance flavor before eating.
What to do with the Wasabi Plant
The Wasabi plant has other uses, as well. The leaves of the root are also hot and are sometimes ground as a spice. Additionally, the Japanese often use the plant as a smelling salt. In recent years, the odor of the Wasabi root has been used to act as a smoke alarm for the deaf. The smell can arouse people from a deep sleep when sprayed into a room!