Beware thrill seekers! The green blob on the side of your sashimi might look like real wasabi, but chances are what you’re supping with your soya is actually a cocktail of cornstarch, vinegar, and European horseradish. It’s not that the counterfeit doesn’t complement your sushi or clear your sinuses. It’s just that… well… it’s not the real thing.
The ‘wasabi’ available in the majority of supermarkets and restaurants is seiyo, or ‘Western wasabi’. Even in Japan, wasabi capital of the world, less than five percent of restaurants serve real wasabi. The green stuff you buy in tubes, the powders you mix with water, it’s all part of wasabi make-believe.
So where’s the wasabi? The Japanese have been growing the real stuff since the 10th Century. It’s grown all over Japan, from Sakhalin Island north of Hokkaido, all the way to Kyushu in the South. Wasabi plants take from eighteen months to three years to reach maturity – a long time between sushi rolls.
If you talk to a wasabi fiend, it’s all worth the wait. But wasabi production has been limited by urban spread, pollution, and rigorous growing requirements. The wasabi produced in Japan can’t stretch to fill Japan’s own requirements, so when you factor in the roll out of sushi into restaurants around the world, wasabi suddenly comes top of the menu.
Demand for wasabi is steadily growing. Wasabi rhizomes hit the market at around $AUD100 a kilo in peak season, an average of five to ten dollars for one little root. Wasabi’s heart-shaped leaves might be symbolic of the love affair many have with the herb, but it’s these underground rhizomes that get diners really hot.
Spicing it up
Real wasabi is crammed full of potassium, calcium and vitamin C, though you’d have to consume entire plants to make up your daily nutrient allowance. Unlike chomping a chili, crunching a chunk of wasabi won’t leave you with permanent scars.
The spicy party in your palate is actually a natural defense response, evolved in wasabi plants to dissuade hungry insects. When wasabi plant cells are damaged, usually by chewing or grating, chemicals called isothiocyanates, or ITCs, are produced. ITCs give wasabi its fiery flavour, and also a plateful of healthy properties.
The grand finale to all this fuss looks more like an unhappy carrot than a gourmet meal, but that hasn’t stopped the rush. Health nuts and food fanatics the world over are chasing the kick.
What to look for in fresh wasabi
If you’re lucky enough to find real wasabi, don’t let its appearance put you off. This is a taste sensation you should judge by its cover. You can learn a lot about your wasabi from the way it has been trimmed. Extensive trimming covers up for an inferior product; insufficient trimming leaves you paying extra for the lower-quality bits left behind. If the top has been lopped off altogether, you’re looking at an imported crop.
Colour is also important: the best stuff is dark green with a softer green inside. And in the world of wasabi, size most certainly matters. Six inches long and an inch and a half thick at the crown is guaranteed to be a real crowd pleaser.
Serving it up like a pro
Serving real wasabi is an art form, requiring timing, finesse and an oroshi, or sharkskin grater. Once grated, wasabi’s flavour develops with exposure to air. To reduce this exposure, wasabi is grated perpendicular to the grater and then rolled into a ball.
For maximum taste sensation, wasabi should be consumed within five to ten minutes after grating, when its flavour will have sufficiently stewed.
That’s right. After painstaking years in the ground, considerable cash outlay and intense care of presentation, grated wasabi will only last five to ten minutes. This means you can choose to keep the faith and take drastic measures to ensure your guests are on time. Or you can nip down to the supermarket and pick up a tube of the fake stuff. This will set you back a couple of dollars, but will last months and months in the back of your fridge. You won’t even need a sharkskin grater.
When you get down to it, the real thing looks much the same as the fake. An unimposing blop of green on your plate. But closer inspection will reveal a chunkier texture, a less homogenous blend. Ponder longer with your nostrils, and real wasabi will reward you with a sweeter, more biting pungency. And put to the taste test, the real thing is more subtle, a richer rainbow of flavour.
Or so they say. It was all much of a muchness to me.
If you have the time, the money and the patience, the Real Thing can put real zing in your meal. But for the time-hungry and budget-conscious, a handy tube in the back of the fridge can be just as enjoyable. Bon appetit!
Recipe ideas: some like it hot
Whether you decide to go for authentic action, or a little help from the tube, wasabi can spice up almost any meal. Mix a little with some soy sauce and grated ginger, and you have one of the slickest dipping sauces this side of the sushi counter.
Want something a bit more experimental? Mix wasabi with Dijon mustard, butter and lemon to make a scrumptious spread. Or toss a green salad with wasabi and lime juice dressing – delicious! Don’t forget to spice up your cocktails with a scoop of green: favorites include wasabi, vodka and orange, or wasabi, midori and pineapple.
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