Anyone who’s ever eaten sushi in a restaurant, from a sushi bar or even had the nasty stuff you can buy from a supermarket is familiar with the blob of green paste that is served beside it.
This stuff is Wasabi, right?… WRONG! The pasty green stuff that melts the wax in your ears and causes your eyes to water if taken in too large a dose is not Wasabi at all and very few seem to be aware of this. In fact those who do know don’t appear to want the secret to get out, but I’m here to let you in on the truth.
What you are being served on your platter of sushi is in fact a mix of horseradish, mustard, food colouring and artificial flavors that have been reconstituted with water from a powder form. The likelihood of having ever tried the real thing outside of Japan is slim to none.
If you look at the tube of paste or tin of powder that is claimed to be “wasabi” at your local market you’ll find it will likely state on the packaging that it comes from Japan. So how is it that a product made in Japan that claims to be wasabi is in fact a fake? Well, the Japanese export horseradish-based products as ‘wasabi’ because in Japanese, horseradish is known as ‘seiyo’ or ‘western’ wasabi. When horseradish was first introduced to Japan, the Japanese called it ‘seiyo’ wasabi because it’s pungency is similar to wasabi. This is part of the reason why green coloured horseradish is now being exported from Japan under the ‘wasabi’ name. That and it’s easy to pass this stuff off as real to westerners because they don’t know any better.
The plant Wasabia Japonica is in a family that includes mustard, cabbage and horseradish and is sometimes referred to as Japanese Horseradish. Wasabi grows in the the wet banks of Japan ’s cool mountain streams. The plant itself consists of the rhizome or root and clusters of long stemmed heart like leaves. It is the rhizome that is used to make the true wasabi that is traditionally served with sushi and sashimi.
It’s the nature of the plant itself that is at the root (sorry) of the problem. Wasabi is very particular in where it likes to grow and has been extremely difficult to cultivate in North America. Some success has been made in BC as well as the pacific northwest of the United States which are two of the very few places the plant will grow outside of Japan, but by and large it is only available in any quantity to the Japanese market. Another issue is that it can take several years for a single plant to reach maturity. These factors combine to make the cost of real Wasabi at up to $200 per Kg far too high for the average restaurant or sushi lover.
If you want to try the real thing and money is no object you can order it HERE
And if you want to know how to prepare the rhyzome check out my How-to on the subject