Most of us know wasabi as that green paste that is quite spicy and comes with our sushi. We take a big (or small, depending on your tastes) dollop, add it to our soy sauce and mix it up for the perfecting dipping mixture. This extra heat adds a wonderful element to the delicious raw fish and soft, fluffy rice.
But what exactly is this green substance that looks almost unnatural with its bright green color? The paste must come from somewhere.
A Cruciferous Vegetable
That’s right, wasabi – or Wasabi Japonica – is a vegetable that has a lot in common with kale and Brussels sprouts. However, it is not usually used in the same way. The others are often roasted, boiled or sautéed. For wasabi, it’s the rhizome that we are interested in. This is a stem that extends underground before becoming roots for the plant.
To prepare it, you break off all the leaves from the above ground section and the roots from the below. The rhizome is then grated into an incredibly fine paste. Traditionally this was done on shark skin because it is so rough it acts in a similar fashion to sand paper. In today’s world, a super fine grater will do the trick. This paste is then used to season dishes in the cooking phase or afterwards – much like salt and pepper.
The Horseradish Fake
Unfortunately, most of us have never actually had true wasabi with our sushi. This is because it is quite expensive to get and doesn’t last very long after it has been grated. A prepackaged wasabi is undoubtedly going to be horseradish, which comes from the same plant family – Brassicaceae – and does have a fairly similar taste.
Fake wasabi is usually made from pureed or powdered horseradish that has been turned into a paste through the use of some kind of thickening agent. This could be corn starch or flour, which doesn’t normally impact the taste. Mustard powder – another plant from the Brassicaceae family – is also sometimes added. Then, the paste is turned into that signature green color through the use of artificial coloring.
You can usually tell the difference between the real stuff and the fake imposter by the texture of the paste. The horseradish version is a lot smoother since the root is pulverized as opposed to grated. The real deal will have a bit of a grit to it.
The Healthy Side
Wasabi isn’t just a delicious thing to add to your sushi to enhance the flavor. It’s also very good for you. The paste you add to your meal can help your body to fight off food poisoning (making it an ideal companion for raw fish dishes). It’s also said to be an anti-inflammatory, but this is still just a theory and the effects it has on humans still need to be fully tested. In fact, the ITCs that the plant contains have a whole list of potential health benefits that scientists are currently testing out.