What Is Wasabi?

Exploring the origin of sushi's spicy companion

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

If you’ve ever had sushi before, you’ve probably noticed the green blob of spicy paste sitting on the corner of your plate. You may have even tricked a friend into eating the whole thing without them realizing what it was. I’m of course talking about wasabi. Usually paired with Japanese pickled ginger, called gari, wasabi is a staple for sushi chefs and sushi fans alike. But what exactly is it?

Wasabi in its pure form is a root. It’s part of the same family as horseradish and mustard, two other plants known for their heat. Unlike chile peppers, which are spicy from their inherent oil capsaicin, wasabi releases a series of hot vapors when grated. The burn is short and sweet, travelling through your sinuses and igniting the senses. Its aroma is so intense that Japanese scientists have been working on a fire alarm for the deaf that wakes them using the scent from wasabi.

Traditional Japanese sushi restaurants will grate the wasabi fresh per order, as it begins to lose its potency within a few minutes. Some people like to dip only the ends of their chopsticks in the wasabi, while more daring diners may mix their wasabi with soy sauce to create a hot dipping sauce, known as wasabi-joyu.

The wasabi you’ve most likely had, however, actually differs quite a bit from the real thing. Wasabi roots are difficult to grow, and a pound can cost up to $100, so a substitute is often made by combining mustard, horseradish, and food coloring to give it its iconic light green hue. While there is a taste difference, it’s hard to argue with the price; you can purchase a tube of wasabi in the Asian cuisine or international sections of your supermarket for only a few dollars.

Wasabi isn’t just limited to sushi. It can be combined in a marinade for fish, or added to a simple aioli to create a spicy dip. You may have even noticed green bags of wasabi peas in your supermarket while searching for wasabi. These crunchy fried peas are coated with wasabi and sugar, and are a great snack if you want to pace yourself; you can only eat them so fast...

Though the variety the West is more accustomed to may not be completely authentic, wasabi remains a mainstay of any sushi dining experience, with its many uses and spicy reputation. The next time you’re out shopping and you want to add that extra kick to a recipe, consider using some wasabi and you may be surprised by the results. Just make sure to be judicious; a little goes a long way!

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