Did you know that the sinus-searing green paste that most people know as “wasabi” is not wasabi at all? Most commercially sold “wasabi powder” is actually made from dried, powdered horseradish and Chinese mustard artificially tinted with food coloring.
True wasabi is a prized culinary ingredient which, until recently, was found mainly in Japan. The lumpy rhizome, (root-like stem) is grated to produce a light green creamy paste that possesses a fragrant aroma and potently piquant flavor that quickly dissipates leaving a lingering sweet finish, unlike the mind-blowing burn associated with artificial wasabi.
Fortunately for lovers of this pungent rhizome, the North American cultivation of high quality wasabi is now a reality, with an ever-increasing number of wasabi growers on both coasts as well as here in Michigan.
Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) is a semi-aquatic herbaceous perennial, native to the shaded moist banks of the cool mountain streams of Japan’s northern islands. Wasabi is known to have been actively cultivated for at least a thousand years. It’s reasonable to assume that it was used by early man far back into prehistory.
Wasabi is a crucifer, a large family of plants which include mustard, broccoli, cabbage and horseradish. Wasabi contains powerful antibacterial compounds (which makes it an ideal condiment for raw seafood) and is believed to possess anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
The plant itself consists of a tuberous rhizome from which emerge long fibrous stems or petioles, which are topped with large, heart shaped leaves. In early spring, the wasabi plant blossoms with clusters of delicate white flowers. All parts of the wasabi plant, rhizomes, petioles, leaves and flowers, are edible and each has an honored role in Japanese culture.
Culinary uses of wasabi
Wasabi has long been a staple condiment in traditional Japanese cuisine. It’s hard to imagine sushi, sashimi, soba noodles and many other Japanese dishes without the distinctive flavor of wasabi. The leaves are frequently eaten fresh or used as a colorful plate decoration. Even the stem-like petioles are eaten, sometimes pickled or combined with other ingredients for use as a condiment.
In recent years, wasabi has become a favored ingredient of creative chefs who appreciate its unique qualities and use it in imaginative dishes, experimenting with exciting new preparations that fuse the culinary traditions of both East & West.
Storing Fresh Wasabi Rhizomes
Fresh wasabi rhizomes should be wrapped in moist paper towels and stored in the refrigerator in a covered container. Alternatively, they may also be stored immersed in fresh water in the refrigerator, with the water being changed daily. When properly stored, fresh wasabi rhizomes have a shelf life of three weeks or more.
Preparation of Wasabi
In order to produce the best flavor, texture and heat, the wasabi rhizome must first be finely ground into paste. The traditional method for grating wasabi is by using a grater made of sharkskin. In the west, a ceramic or metal grater with fine teeth is more commonly used. A ginger grater or box grater will work in a pinch.
The active components of wasabi are released by the action of grating. Once the wasabi is grated, these chemical compounds are mixed and a chemical reaction takes place. The finer the paste, the more potent the wasabi heat becomes.
Grating fresh wasabi
First, rinse the rhizome under cold running water and pat dry. Holding the rhizome perpendicular to the surface of the grater, grate the rhizome with a circular motion. Grate only as much as you need for immediate use, as the flavor and potency will begin to diminish within 10 – 15 minutes. Mound the grated wasabi together and allow to “bloom” for about 5 – 7 minutes to reach maximum potency.
Suggested uses of wasabi
Sure, everyone knows it as the classic condiment with Japanese seafood dishes like sushi and sashimi, but the unique and powerful flavor of wasabi merits bold experimentation.
Like it’s close cousins, horseradish and mustard, wasabi’s refreshing bite makes it a natural accompaniment to Western-style grilled meats. Last weekend, when we slow-grilled a beef brisket, we whipped up this quick & easy sauce to accompany it in less than 5 minutes. It was so simple, yet so good that we have to pass it on.
- 1 Tbsp grated fresh wasabi
- 2 tsp Pommery Original Mustard from Meaux
- 2 cups Greek-style yogurt (substitute sour cream if desired)
- 1/8 tsp raw cane sugar
- generous pinch of salt or to taste
Make sure that you grate the wasabi just before making this sauce. Wasabi will quickly lose it’s pungent heat if you prepare it too far ahead of time. The acid in the yogurt will help to stabilize the wasabi a bit, as will the sugar.
The combination of wasabi and strong mustard creates a mouthwatering blend of two distinct kinds of flavor and heat. The mustard bite hits first, followed and accentuated by the punch of aromatic wasabi which lasts a moment or two before fading to a lingering sweetness.
Finely grate the wasabi and allow to stand for about 5 minutes. Mix the wasabi with the remaining ingredients and serve immediately.
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