The truth about wasabi

I’ve always been fascinated by wasabi which, up until I started travelling to Japan, meant the sweet, fiery green paste served in a pea-sized blob with sushi. 


(Or, less conventionally, with ice cream and melon, but I'll come to that)

What on earth was it? Where did it come from? Why did it make my nose burn like Vicks Vaporub?

I’d heard all sorts of explanations, ranging from that it was a kind of horseradish, to that it was made from mustard powder or, as I tried to convince my children, from Kermit’s dandruff, but it wasn’t until I visited Japan for the first time about ten years ago that I had the earth shattering experience of trying real, fresh wasabi.

Warning! Food ponce alert! (As if everything else on this blog hasn’t been enough of a warning). I realise how precious this sounds, but having now tried real wasabi a few times, I realise how rubbish the stuff we get in the West is. It is like comparing fake aerosol snow with the real stuff.

The stuff we get in the West, in sushi restaurants and in tubes/powdered form in the supermarkets is usually made from coloured mustard powder and perhaps some dried horseradish.

The real stuff comes from one of these: it’s the root of the wasabi japonica plant, a rhizome in the family with horseradish. It doesn’t burn your sinuses and tastes mild, sweet and beautifully fragrant. 


Sorry, that's not a real one. This is:


While researching ‘Sushi and Beyond’ I was lucky enough to travel to Ugashima, a forested peninsula south of Mount Fuji, where the very best wasabi is grown. I visited Yoshio Ando, an award winning wasabi farmer and, with a little gentle pleading, he agreed to take me high up into the hills to see where it was grown.



There, as we looked out over what looked like a rice paddy valley filled with rhubarb, Yoshio explained that wasabi is one of the most temperamental crops in the world to grow, requiring strict temperature limits (never colder than ten degrees, never warmer than 16) and constant, fresh, clean, cold flowing water. They have apparently been cultivating it in Japan since 1744, when they discovered its antibacterial properties (which is how it came to associated with raw fish).

They have also managed to cultivate it in California and China, he explained, but only using lots of chemicals and without the flowing water.

Later that day I enjoyed an entire wasabi themed meal at Shirakabeso, the White Wall Inn, an amazing spa nearby. Ten or so courses, all including wasabi, might sound rather overwhelming, but fresh wasabi is not nearly as fiery as artificial wasabi, and worked really well as an accompaniment to everything from wild boar, to live abalone, to ice cream and pickled rhododendron leaves. 



The owner, Ikuko Uda, is a world expert on wasabi, having spent years studying the plant at Shikawa University, and she explained its anti-carcinogenic properties, how to grate it in a circular motion on a sharkskin grater, and lots of other fascinating wasabi facts.

As well as various minerals and vitamins, wasabi contains around twenty different types of isothiocynates (a compound it shares with mustard and broccoli) which have anti-inflammatory properties. This makes wasabi a useful treatment for allergies and eczema. It’s anti-microbial qualities also mean it works against tooth decay and apparently it can even calm diarrhoea. Most interesting of all, the isothiocynates are thought to stop the spread of cancers at the metastasis stage. Wasabi is, then, a bona fide superfood – you can even eat the leaves. They taste a little like very peppery rocket. The Japanese also pickle the stems in sake lees, the left overs from making sake. Very good they were too.






(That's wasabi bread!)





So, I can’t urge you enough to try and get hold of some real wasabi by any means you can. 


(Incidentally, proper sushi chefs get very annoyed if you ask for extra sushi and mix it in with your dipping sauce/soy. They very carefully add a blob to their nigiri or maki and, rightly, believe that too much numbs the palate. Doesn’t stop me, though, I have to admit.)


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  1. 1

    Alistair Little mentions in his book Keep it Simple that the mustard they use to make the cheap wasabi is none other than imported English mustard. I am not sure how true this is though.
    He follows up with a brilliantly simple recipe for pan fried duck breast with wilted Pak Choi and a blob of Coleman’s in a hat tilt towards the wasabi/mustard connection.

  2. 2
    Michael Booth

    I have heard that English mustard powder is often used, yes. Wouldn’t be surprised if they just coloured it and added water. It is a most underrated ingredient, with its horseradishy feistiness.
    Unfortunately, the only way you can source it is to trick your way into the home of an unsuspecting elderly lady: they always have some Coleman’s in a rusty tin dating from the Crimean War at the back of their larders.
    Whatever happened to Alistair Little? He was such an important pioneer in the ’80s but never achieved Rowley Leigh/Antonio Carluccio celebrity status.

  3. 3

    He runs a deli in Notting Hill called Tavola. I think he got fed up with the pressure of the service thing – much like Simon Hopkinson did to be honest. I wish he would write still though – he has a caustic and no nonsense style I like very much.

  4. 4
    MVH-in Japan

    I am living in Chiba, and my favorite combination is wasabi and cheddar. Although it is very hard for me to find a good vintage matured cheddar in Japan, I sometimes get a friend to bring a big chunk.
    I cannot begin to describe the smack in the mouth you get from this combination, and yes, I started off with the supermarket wasabi, admittedly better in JP. But I was soon onto buying wasabi risomes for the sole purpose of the cheddar combination.
    There are few better taste moments then a good vintage cheddar with a slice of wasabi ontop. Failing that just use the mustard powder stuff to give you a hint of what it is like.

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