Japanese horseradish wasabi has made it onto the global culinary stage, but beware, beware, beware. Like may of the finest things in life - art, diamonds, narcotics (?!), banknotes, Buddhist statuary - for every genuine item there are countless fakes and pale imitations, peddled by mercenaries rogues out to relieve you of your precious coin. So it is with wasabi.
Ok, maybe I exaggerate here, but it is definitely true that there’s some awful stuff sold in the name of Japanese horseradish. Here in Japan too. If the thing isn’t a large, green, pleasant-smelling vegetable, with roots sticking out of it, be wary. The con may be on.
Where To Find Wasabi
Wasabi grows only in the purest of waters, or swamps fed by them, often in remote locations, and is near impossible to commercially farm, thus it is intrinsically rare, and expensive. Thus, in its inexpensive forms it invariably diluted, ‘cut’ as the drug world would say, with cheaper substances. Here in Japan the most commonly agent is a cheap mustard derivative.
Naturally, commercial producers are unwilling to make you aware of this. If you are in the position to check the label, look for the wording hon wasabi 本わさび or 本山葵 which guarantees, in theory at least, that the product is 100% pure. Even then , 'contains hon wasabi' is a common ruse. If it’s just wasabi, wasabi product, nama fresh wasabi, or wasabi flavoring, or even just ‘wasabi’ you need to take care. The Business Insider website expresses it thus:
"The vast majority of wasabi consumed in america is simply a mix of horseradish, hot mustard, and green dye, according to a new video from the american chemical society. "
In fact, about 99% of all wasabi sold in the US is fake, The Washington Post reports. Even in Japan where most wasabi is grown, you won't have much better luck. Experts estimate that about 95% of wasabi sold in the country is an imitation.
The reason for all this caution of course is simple: the taste. Fresh wasabi, grated on the spot, is absolutely sublime. It suffuses gently through your mouth, pungent yet smooth at the same time. In combination with good shoyu or tsuyu noodle dipping sauce, some buckwheat soba or fine sushi, it is truly memorable.
The best places will bring the wasabi itself, and a metal or sharkskin-topped oroshigane wasabi grater, and you simply grate your own. They are not being lazy. It’s a display of their honesty.
Incidentally, I learned all about the wasabi fakery whilst researching a book, helped by a very reliable, if somewhat unexpected source: my nose. It transpires I have a strong allergy, not to wasabi, but rather to commercially produced karashi Japanese mustard. The mere presence of it sets me off sneezing dramatically. Every single time.
Thus there have been a few times, whilst dining out at expensive Japanese restaurants with my wife that I’ve been presented with some fabulous sashimi or sushi, only to place it in my mouth and immediately sneeze. Mrs A has learned the signs, and always flashes me a knowing glance. If I eat away with evident pleasure, and no sneezing, we know we are in good wasabi hands.
A Little Wasabi History
Japanese horseradish has been used in Japan since the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD). Initially it was perceived as a medicine, and it was only during the Edo era, with that society’s love for soba buckwheat noodles and the newly craze for sushi, that it took off as a condiment. Today the wheel has come full circle, with researchers investigating wasabi’s anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties.
Fresh Japanese horseradish can be found in any good market, though prices rocket out of season.