All About Fresh Wasabi
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 it nearly always a mixture of horseradish and green coloring, with perhaps a little dry mustard, or possibly, a very little 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 unmatched taste experience.
And here it is...
My Trip To Bountiful - An Afternoon with Brian the Wasabi Guy
Article by Jenny Fox
It’s a chilly, gray morning in May here in the 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.
Tim and I are here to talk with wasabi meister Dr. Brian Oates, his wife Laurencia Coupal, and their 10-year-old daughter Aleena, who met us at one of their prime wasabi-growing sites. As Aleena leads us all 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 about 18 months 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 here. After a brisk washing in lots of cold water, Brian deftly trims away the leaves (and saves them; 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 is not a bad substitute, although it has none of the romance of sharkskin.)
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 just 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 chop stick, 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. With grilled fish, as an accompaniment to fresh lump crab salad. Dotted 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 unlikely to be found outside of Japan – what better touch for your next springtime dinner party than a wasabi-leaf salad?
Among chefs, Brian and Laurencia are finding an audience that’s particularly interested in their recently available fresh wasabi. They work with chefs from nearby Vancouver, with its terrific culinary scene and strong Asian-Pacific influences; to the U.S. and Europe, where a number of chefs at Michelin-rated two- and three-star restaurants are customers, and even as far away as South Africa, where one chef brings wasabi to the table for customers to grate themselves! Wasabi is particularly suited for tableside service, since its flavor fades quickly. In addition to accompanying sushi and sashimi, chefs are serving wasabi with oysters, with steak, and to flavor soufflés, to name a few ideas!
How to Store Your Wasabi
Rhizomes: Individually wrap each rhizome in a damp paper towel and then store them in a bowl, uncovered, in the fridge. Do not use plastic; the rhizomes need air circulation. Keep the paper towels damp, and rhizomes will store well for two weeks. If they darken on the edges, scrape off outermost layer with a vegetable peeler.
Leaves and Petioles (Stems): These store very well in the fridge for about 10 days. Wash leaves and petioles and leave them moist; store in sealed plastic zip-type bag.
Preparing Fresh Wasabi
Preparing wasabi to eat is a snap – and it’s fun, too! Start by washing the rhizome and trimming any bumps. Then trim the root-end (holding the leafy end upright) for a fresh surface, and grate wasabi into a small pile. Let it rest one to two minutes for flavors to develope – and then, serve!
NOTE: Wasasbi loses its flavor very quickly – in about 15-20 minutes when exposed to air – so gathering the shavings into a ball not only keeps it together for easy use as a condiment, but minimizes exposure to air.
TIP: You can freshen up wasabi that’s lost its flavor by grating on a little fresh wasabi into the pile and gathering it all into a ball again, rolling it between your fingers. Wasabi should be “sticky;” it should stay in a ball-shape.
The Whole Story - How Fresh Wasabi Ended Up In The Pacific Northwest
Despite its incredible culinary appeal, Brian initially became interested in wasabi for its potential health benefits. Brian, who until five years ago was a researcher and lecturer in Botany at the University of British Columbia, came across some information about wasabi and its potentially anti-cancer properties right at a time when he had recently lost several family members to cancer.
In 1993, he ordered his first wasabi seeds from Japan and planted them. They died soon after, but a second batch sprouted and grew. Fast-forward to today – skipping past years of trial and error, endless experiments with growing conditions – and now, the wasabi is top-notch. It’s also available nearly year-round, except during infrequent freezes.
Wasabia japonica is native to Japan, where it has long been a coveted delicacy (and also believed to have medicinal benefits – more on this below). Such was wasabi’s desirability, Brian told us, that according to one story, shoguns gave Samurai warriors wasabi plantations as retirement packages.
In the wild, wasabi grows naturally in cold, mountain stream beds. Traditional Japanese farmers have also planted it in streams for cultivation, which produces great plants; aquatic or semi-aquatic, or sawa wasabi, is considered more desirable for flavor and character than soil-grown. For Brian, however, in-stream was not a viable long-term planting option, considering the meandering route of streams, even controlled for planting. “It’s not very linear,” he points out – certainly not in the Western farming model of neat fields on acreage! Now, after years of research and experimentation, Brian and his associates have developed a method of growing sawa wasabi, with excellent results.
“It’s like baking a difficult cake. But once you figure out the recipe, it’s not difficult,” said Brian.
Perhaps not, but the recipe took a while to discover! Even now, they continue to experiment and tweak their methods.
The Health Benefits of Wasabi
In an article published in the August 2007 edition of Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, Brian and co-author Glen Nagel, N.D., detail some of the potential benefits of wasabi, some of which are summarized below.
* Wasabi is a member of the super-healthy cruciferous family, which includes kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, mustard and more.
* When ground up and mixed with water – that is, when chewed – a group of compounds in fresh wasabi convert to isothiocyanates (ITCs); much of the health-related research on wasabi has focused on the attributes of these ITCs. (They don’t occur in dried wasabi, but recent work is showing that freeze-drying preserves them until they are ingested.)
* In Japan, wasabi has long been believed to have medicinal properties. ITCs inhibit some strains of bacteria, yeast and mold; it is believed that wasabi’s anti-microbial effects are a reason that it became a part of the diet in Japan, an effective complement to any ill effects of raw fish.
* ITCs also have anti-inflammatory effects, meaning that wasabi may be useful for controlling seasonal allergies and asthma. Brian and his family are convinced that it is, and they love to tell stories of friends and family members helped greatly by wasabi (in freeze-dried capsule form).
Other potential benefits are helping to prevent tooth decay and, possibly, working against cancer cells. Research has been limited, partly due to the low availability of wasabi and the expense in obtaining it. Brian hopes that, having learned to grow it, he will be able to help scientific research on wasabi progress.
*Fresh wasabi is occasionally available at some well-stocked Asian groceries. However, it will likely be from China, which usually means soil-grown rather than water-grown, generally considered of less desirable culinary quality.
Fresh Wasabi - The Whole Nine Yards
Plants: Wasabi is ready to harvest after about 18 months, when the bushy, leafy plants are about knee-high. The whole plant is pulled up.
Rhizome: The rhizome – a thick, root-like stem growing just above ground-level – is the coveted part of the plant. The knobby rhizome is about THREE to SIX inches long.
Leaves: Virtually unknown in North America are the wasabi plant’s leaves. The PALM-size leaves and long, crisp, light-green stems are both edible and delicious. They don’t taste quite like wasabi, but they have a bit of a spicy bite to them, and they make an excellent salad green. They also store well in the fridge: for up to a week, wrapped in damp paper towels.
Keywords: Wasabi, Japan, Horseradish, Wasabia japonica, petioles