Is the World your Oyster?

Travel to See the World Unravel

Japanese Horseradish – Wasabi わさび 와사비 山葵

on June 3, 2011

Fresh Wasabi

Alishan National Scenic Area 阿里山國家風景區

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Courtesy of Wikibooks:

Wasabi (Japanese: 山葵 or 和佐比; scientific name Wasabia japonica (syn. Cochlearia wasabi, Eutrema japonica) is a member of the cabbage family. Commonly known as Japanese horseradish, it grows naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan. It is green and has an extremely strong flavor. Its hotness is different from chili pepper, which burns the tongue; wasabi’s strong sensations shoot up one’s sinus cavity instead.

The historical purpose for wasabi is supposedly to kill the bacteria in the raw fish often used in sushi.

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Courtesy of Steamy Kitchen:

What is Fresh Wasabi?

by Tim Mar

Ever wonder why Wasabi, that fiery green paste and indispensable sushi accompaniment, tastes so much like horseradish?

Here’s why: because it IS horseradish.

Although we’ve learned to call it Wasabi, what we’re served in sushi restaurants in North America – and largely in Japan, too – is nearly always a mixture of horseradish and green coloring, with perhaps a little dry mustard, with possibly a very little bit of real Wasabi added in.

Why not offer the real deal? Because real wasabi, Wasabia japonica, is very rare. Even in its native Japan, demand constantly outstrips supply, and it’s expensive to import and notoriously tricky to grow.

It is a rare find and an unmatched taste experience.
And here it is…

The Secret Wasabi Grotto

It’s a chilly, gray morning in May here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m peering through dark-colored shade tarp walls into a long greenhouse. Inside, a thick, lush carpet of wasabi plants extend from one end to the other, almost ready to be harvested. There’s barely room to pick a pathway through the sea of green.

We are here to talk with Wasabi Meister, Brian, his wife, Laurencia, and their 10-year-old daughter, Aleena, who met us at one of their prime wasabi-growing sites. As Aleena leads us into the greenhouse, the rich, heavy, green smell of the damp plants envelops us. We watch as Brian selects a big, bushy plant that’s ready for harvest, after years of growing.

Loosening it from the ground with a hoe he pulls it up, leaves, roots and all, and carries it outside to a cleaning and prep station conveniently set up right outside the greenhouse.

After a brisk washing in lots of cold water, Brian deftly trims away the leaves (which he saves; they’re edible too – and delicious!), cuts off the roots, and holds out a knobby, 3-inch-long, greenish, root-like object: the coveted wasabi rhizome.

The rhizome, which is a root-like stem that grows above ground, is the part of the plant that’s grated to make wasabi as we know it – that is, wasabi as we’re used to seeing it but not tasting it!

Aleena, their daughter, proudly does the honors of grating the wasabi. Traditionally a sharkskin grater is used and is still considered optimal, but ceramic works well, too. (We’ve also found that A MICROPLANE zester will work for some applications, although it does not mash the rhizome, which is ideal.)

In a minute, Aleena amasses a little pile of grated wasabi, a lovely, light shade of green. (It really is green; the color comes from chlorophyll, since despite its root-like appearance, the rhizome grows above ground.) She pushes the shavings into a neat little pile, and then we let them rest for one to two minutes. This allows the wasabi’s flavor to develop; the flavor-producing compounds react following grating and exposure to the air. They’re extremely volatile, though – meaning that fresh wasabi loses its pungency and hot flavor in about 20 minutes. It must be eaten freshly grated!

Finally, on the tip of a chopstick, we taste the fresh wasabi. It’s a revelation – like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s strong and hot, but with no harshness and no lasting burn. Plus, it tastes green, herbal, distinctly plant-like (unlike the imitation version); it’s a very clean, pure flavor.

The Joys of Real Wasabi

Just imagine this with sushi – but that’s not all. Imagine it with grilled fish, as an accompaniment to fresh lump crab salad, dotter atop steaming mashed potatoes, or along a plate like a coulis. From steak to fresh vegetables, it’s a brilliant accompaniment. And you can’t get it anywhere else…!*

But wait, there’s more: don’t forget the wasabi leaves and their long stems!

The large, heart-shaped leaves and crisp stems, known as petioles, are edible and excellent. Pleasantly spicy, resembling spicier varieties of salad greens but with a distinct hint of wasabi flavor, they’re flavorful and refreshing (and the touch of heat fades quickly, as with the grated rhizome). Even more than the rhizomes, the leaves are extremely rare outside of Japan. What better touch for your next springtime dinner party than a wasabi-leaf salad?

To Find Out More About the Health Benefits of Wasabi, Visit Steamy Kitchen.

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The freshly grated Wasabi that I tried at one of the food stalls at Alishan National Scenic Park was definitely so much fresher and naturally raw in taste than the tubed ones commonly sold at supermarkets. Contrary to popular belief, the fresh Wasabi  did not induce a strong smoking hot sensation like most tubed Wasabi. It was spicy no doubt, but not smoking hot.

Delectable.

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