KOKORO – The curious case of wasabi: internationally known condiment very few have tried

Everyone knows what wasabi is. Or at least, most of us think we know about the Japanese answer to horseradish.

Thanks to the never-ending popularity of sushi and sashimi, wasabi can be found in a tube on most supermarkets’ shelves, is eaten as snack in the form of peas and has even flavoured Kit Kats…

However, you will be surprised to know: what you have been eating is most definitely not wasabi. The “wasabi” we have all eaten with our takeaway sushi is in fact mustard, horseradish and food colouring. Only about 5% of what we’ve all had a chance to taste in Japanese restaurants around the world comes from the wasabi plant, says BBC.

Why such a subterfuge? Real wasabi, which comes in 100 different varieties, is extremely difficult to grow and as a result, it doesn’t come cheap. Constant temperature, a high altitude, pure, soft water and irrigation requirements that most large farms would be hard pressed to reproduce make wasabi root somewhat rare and one of the most expensive crops on the planet!

Naturally occurring in the mountainous regions of Japan, it has been a popular produce for centuries but we have to wait for the 17th century for a farmer to successfully grow the root.

The Cordon Bleu website reminds us that “wasabi belongs to the same plant family as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage,” but we can also add mustard and cabbage to the list of family ties. Long used to prevent spoilage, it’s anti-bacterial properties are a reason it was traditionally added to raw fish and meat.

Like some of its cousins, wasabi has a range of health benefits. Whilst it is easy to find information about wasabi as a cure-all, serious research seems limited. But adding wasabi to your diet isn’t a bad idea at all. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)’s Research website lists some of the nutrients packed in the Japanese roots, and it is a who’s who of stuff that are good for you. It is not only water and fiber, but also a substantial amount of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, and it’s packed with vitamin C and A.

So how do you eat it? You may know that the large root is grated – traditionally on a sharkskin grater – and served as a condiment accompanying sushi and sashimi, but the stems can also be pickled and the leaves eaten raw or cooked. So many options!

On the taste front, it is hard to find the distinctive pungency of wasabi in any other ingredients and let’s not forget that real grated wasabi’s sharp taste only lasts for about 15 minutes, so it should be grated as needed. All this explains why the world is increasingly trying to farm this difficult and extremely lucrative crop.

“It is much like gold – we expect to pay a lot for gold. Well, we expect to pay a lot for wasabi,” Mr Oates, who spent 30 years to set up the first commercial North American wasabi farm, told the BBC.

Wasabi might not be easy to farm, to buy or even to try, but it would be a shame to pass on an opportunity to taste this curious root.

Don’t despair though. The paste you get from the supermarket or the takeaway shop might not have the same taste or nutritional value but it should not ever put you off your sushi. However, if you ever get a chance to taste the real thing, you might never want to go back.


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