Translated by Lester Somera
Japanese Encyclopedia: Wasabi
Written by MATCHA
Wasabi is inseparable from sushi. This article offers some fundamental information about wasabi which will be useful for visitors to Japan.
Japanese cuisine is highly appreciated internationally, and registered as part of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage. A particularly popular dish in Japanese cuisine is sushi. The constant companion of sushi, wasabi, is our topic today. We would like to provide some basic information about wasabi for visitors to Japan.
So What Is Wasabi, Exactly?
Wasabi is a plant of the Brassicaceae family, and is native to Japan. It is a perennial plant which grows in places with clean flowing water, and can be harvested year round. It differs from the white-colored horseradish used in Western cuisine; the green Japanese horseradish is known as hon-wasabi.
Grated wasabi root has been used as medicine since the seventh century. The current practice of using it as a condiment or spice is thought to have begun in the Edo period.
Wasabi’s Flavor and Composition
Wasabi contains protein, vitamins and other substances, but the thing which gives wasabi its characteristic sharp heat is allyl isothiocyanate. The flavor and heat are released by enzymes moving to the ruptured cells after the wasabi is grated. The allyl will break down and lose its potency as time passes, so it is said that wasabi tastes best when freshly grated.
Wasabi has an invigorating taste and pungent spiciness. It may be too spicy for small children, but it can become addictive in the case of the people who get to like it. In the film “Wasabi,” starring the famous actor Jean Reno, his character scoops up wasabi with his fingers and eats it, but that way of eating wasabi exists only in movies. Don’t copy it.
How Do I Use Wasabi on Sushi?
Wasabi was originally used as a medicinal plant. It started to be used as a condiment because of the amazing odor-killing and antibacterial effects. A dab of wasabi will eliminate any fishy aromas, and it is believed that this is why wasabi came to be used on sushi.
In addition, wasabi’s hot ingredients stop bacteria which cause food poisoning - such as E.coli and staph - from multiplying, and restrict the growth of mold and yeast. During the Edo era, which lacked refrigeration, Japanese people noticed the effects of wasabi and used it to live healthier lifestyles.
Wasabi is Also Used in These Dishes
Image from: Enjoy the Townscape of Traditional Japan Along With Japanese Cuisine: Gonpachi G-Zone Ginza (MATCHA article, Japanese)
Sushi and soba are foods which use wasabi. Other foods for which wasabi is indispensable are takowasa (raw octopus with wasabi and sake, pickled in other seasonings), toriwasa (slightly-boiled chicken breast flavored with wasabi), itawasa, kamaboko and many more.
There are many seasoning variations like wasabi soy sauce, as well as products like wasabi mayonnaise and wasabi dressing, which are now available also on supermarket shelves overseas.
Perfect For Souvenirs! Unusual Foods That Contain Wasabi
Izu City in Shizuoka, famous for its wasabi production, sells wasabi shōchu (alcoholic beverage) and wasabi wine. You can’t take it home, but at the Banjo Waterfall, also in Izu, they serve wasabi soft-serve ice cream.
There is one more dish that has traditionally used wasabi: wasabi-zuke. Wasabi-zuke is made of the leaves and roots of the wasabi plant, chopped up and pickled in sake lees. Bags of it are lined up at souvenir shops in wasabi-producing areas such as Shizuoka, Yamanashi and Nagano, among others.
Photo by soma-samui.com on Flickr
For people who have picked up a taste for wasabi while in Japan, we recommend buying wasabi in tube form, which can be purchased at any supermarket or convenience store for around 200 yen. How about trying to use wasabi in your own kitchen?
Wasabi-flavored rice crackers, roasted mochi pieces, and other snacks like potato chips can be found at supermarkets and convenience stores. These make great souvenirs. Most wasabi-flavored snacks come in green-colored packages, so use this detail as a guide during your search.
We have told you about the basics of wasabi, a condiment beloved by Japanese people. When you come to Japan, by all means, sample some wasabi-flavored food items.