Wasabi

Other names: Wasabia Japonica

General Information: Fresh Wasabi is a highly prized culinary ingredient used mainly in elite restaurants and sushi bars in Japan. The demand for fresh Wasabi consistently exceeds the supply. So called 'Wasabi' paste is also popular in North American and Japanese restaurants and sushi bars, but what is distributed as Wasabi paste or powder is mostly an imitation product based on horseradish, Chinese mustard and food colouring.

The wasabi plant (Wasabia japonica, also incorrectly equated to Eutrema japonica), a member of the cruciferous family, is native to Japan and is traditionally found growing in or by cold mountain streams. The earliest cultivation of wasabi in Japan dates back to the 10th century. The grated 'rhizome' or above-ground root-like stem of this plant has a fiery hot flavor that quickly dissipates in the mouth, leaving a lingering sweet taste, with no burning sensation.

In Chinese, wasabi is known as shan kui [山葵] (literally "mountain sunflower"). The name wasabi, which has entered most Western languages, is Japanese. In Japan, wasabi was originally written in Kanji as 和佐比 which would be read wasahi in modern language; but this notation is no longer used. Instead, the plant's name is usually written in Hiragana [わさび] or sometimes in Katakana [ワサビ]. The modern Japanese Kanji writing [山葵] parallels the Chinese, but is uncommon due to its irregularity: The single kanji mean yama [山] "mountain" and aoi [葵] "hollyhock". The plant name "hollyhock" refers to Althea rosea, an ornamental closely related to marshmallow, but unrelated to wasabi. Note that although the name is written "yama aoi", it is always spoken wasabi.

Nevertheless, there are some European names for wasabi that translate the Kanji literally as "mountain hollyhock", e.g., Dutch bergstokroos or German Bergstockrose. In English, "mountain hollyhock" more often refers to a true relative of hollyhock, Iliamna rivularis (Malvaceae/Malvales/Dilleniidae).

Many Western languages have borrowed the Japanese name to denote wasabi, sometimes adjusting the word to their own sound system. Some languages use descriptive compounds that name wasabi as a variant of the better-known horseradish, e.g., French raifort du Japon, Dutch Japanse mierikswortel, Russian Yaponskij khren [Японский хрен] and Finnish japaninpiparjuuri, all of which mean "Japanese horseradish". Another interpretation of wasabi's nature is reflected by the Hungarian name zoldtorma "green horseradish".

Japanese namida [涙, 泪, なみだ] means "tear" in everyday speech; if spoken in a sushi bar, however, it will be interpreted by the sushi cook as a wish for an extra-large amount of the lachrymatory wasabi.

There are two main strategies that are used in growing Wasabi. The higher quality Wasabi, both in appearance and taste, grows in cool mountain streams and is known as semi-aquatic or "sawa" Wasabi. Wasabi known as field or "oka" Wasabi is grown in fields under varying conditions and generally results in a lower quality plant, both in appearance and taste.

The most popular variety of Wasabi is known as Daruma. The majority of Wasabi grown by Pacific Coast Wasabi is the Daruma variety, but the Mazuma variety is also being produced, for although it is somewhat less attractive in appearance, it has more heat than the Daruma.

Nutritional: As a member of the cruciferous family, wasabi contains the same cancer-fighting isothiocynates as its cabbage cousins. The American National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have studied cruciferous vegetables extensively for years. They recommend that everyone eat several servings from this vegetable family each week to dramatically lower risk of all types of cancer. Researchers believe that one way the substances in cruciferous vegetables help prevent cancer is by helping the body eliminate excess hormones such as estrogen, thus reducing the risk of hormone-related cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

Applications: Wasabi is a spice known exclusively in Japan; it is mostly served to dishes containing different kinds of raw fish, which are so popular in Japan and rapidly winning friends also in the West. Sometimes, wasabi paste is mixed with soy sauce (wasabi-joyu [山葵醤油, わさび醤油, わさびじょゆ]) yielding a table condiment popular for grilled steaks and going well with tempura, Japanese (but Portuguese-influenced) deep-fried battered vegetables or sea foods (see perilla).

Wasabi paste is made by grating fresh wasabi root on a grater to a very fine texture; most conservative cooks will use graters made from shark skin (samezaya-oroshiki [鮫皮おろ器]), yet metal graters are also in use. Since wasabi roots are difficult to come by outside of Japan (and would be even more difficult to pay for if one by chance stumbles over them), Western sushi bars will typically use prepared wasabi paste sold in tubes or dried wasabi as a powder; both, and particularly the latter, are often not true wasabi (hon-wasabi [本山葵, 本わさび, ほんわさび]), but rather imitations made from horseradish or mustard powder with chlorophyll as an vegetable green pigment. Needless to say, Japanese connoiseurs would rate such surrogates as a far, far inferior material.

The cuisine of Japan cannot be imagined with ingredients anything less than most fresh. This is easy to understand in the case of raw fish, which changes its taste rapidly and can host dangerous bacteria very quickly. In Japan, fish must be fresh enough to not develop any “fishy” odour. On the other side, Japanese cooks put much less emphasis on spices and flavouring; it is seen more desirable to let the ingredients' flavour stand for itself. The pure and clean pungency of wasabi fits very well to this somewhat Spartan concept of tastes.

Even in Europe, the Japanese are well-known for their affection to raw fish, but love to this exotic foodstuff is not restricted to Japan at all (see lime about Mexican ceviche). In Japan, the simplest form of raw fish is called sashimi [刺身, さしみ] and consists simply of absolutely fresh fish in thin slices which are dipped into soy sauce and wasabi paste. More known in the West is sushi, which very often, but by no means necessarily, contains raw fish.

Basically, sushi (properly spelled zushi in compounds) [鮨, 寿司, すし, スシ] is short grain rice cooked with sugar and vinegar (and thus tasting slightly sweet-sour). After cooling, the rice is brought to a flat, plain shape and topped with some flavourful food (nigiri-sushi, nigiri-zushi [握り寿司, 握り鮨, 握鮨, 握りずし, にぎりずし]). As an alternative, the sushi may be placed on dried seaweed (nori [海苔, のり]) and then rolled up; thus, the cylindric rice bits famous in the West are obtained (maki sushi, maki zushi [巻鮨, 巻寿司, まきずし]. A variant of this design is the so-called inside-out, where the rice is outside of the nori leaf. Some maki types may be seasoned with sesame oil for extra flavour; toasted sesame seeds are a common coating for the rice surface of the inside-out maki.

The most common variants of sushi contain raw fish or raw sea foods, e.g., salmon (sake [鮭, さけ, しゃけ]), tuna (tekka [鉄火, てっか] or maguro [鮪, まぐろ]), shrimp (ebi [蝦, 蛯, 海老, えび]) or squid (ika [烏賊, 墨魚, いか]), but there are also sushi types without fish: Scrambled egg (tamago [卵, 玉子, たまご] “egg”), fresh carrot or cucumber (kappa [かっぱ]), and pickled vegetables, predominantly radish (oshinko [お新香, 御新香, おしんこ]). Sushi employing fried or boiled (or even raw) meat is less common, but not unheard of. Sushi is commonly served with soy sauce, wasabi paste and pickled ginger, of which there are two types: gari [がり] is young ginger pickled in vinegar and sugar which has a pale to white colour; beni shōga [紅生姜, べにしょうが]) is a similar product that also contains perilla leaves to which it owes its pink colour. Fragrant herbs like perilla, water pepper or young leaves of sichuan pepper (kinome) are also possible decorations for sushi.

Since sushi is so popular in Western countries, new variants are being created every day, some of which use ingredients which are not at all typical for Japan (avocado, cheese, tomatoes with basil). Indeed, sushi is as versatile as the Western concept of sandwich and it can be seen as a special Japanese version of sandwich that substitutes bread by another processed cereal, boiled rice. From that analogy it becomes more understandable that almost everything that can appear on top of a slice of bread has also been tried to make into a sushi – often (though certainly not always) with amazing success.

Wasabi adds a unique flavour and heat to foods, and can be served as a spice or an herb in a dish or as a condiment on the side.

Generally, the best results in preparing freshly ground wasabi are obtained by using a sharkskin grater or "oroshi". If a sharkskin grater is not available, ceramic or stainless steel surfaces can be used. Ceramic graters with fine nubs are preferable to stainless steel, but in either case, the smaller and finer the 'teeth', the better.

There are several types and sizes of sharkskin graters available in the Japanese market, usually in specialty food stores or higher-end department stores. Sharkskin mounted on small wooden paddles are generally available in three sizes, with prices ranging between 1,000 and 2,000 yen. Sharkskin mounted on ceramic paddles is slightly more expensive.

Using sharkskin as a tool for grating wasabi has been a practice in Japan since the earliest times, and is still regarded as the preferred method of obtaining the best flavour, texture and consistency in freshly ground wasabi.

Grating wasabi releases volatile compounds, which gradually dissipate with exposure to the air. Using a traditional sharkskin grater and keeping the rhizome at a 90-degree angle to the grating surface generally minimizes exposure to the air. In this way, the volatile compounds are allowed to develop with minimal dissipation. This combination of natural volatiles, consistency and texture distinguish fresh wasabi from the imitation varieties of powdered and paste horseradish, which have been mixed with Chinese mustard and green food colouring.

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