When it's time for dinner, what do you hope to see on the dinner table? Fried chicken? Roast and potatoes? Pizza? Spaghetti and meatballs? How about raw fish, vegetables, and rice?
If you've ever had sushi, then there's a good chance you've also tried a spicy green paste that usually accompanies sushi. What are we talking about? Wasabi, of course!
Real wasabi comes from the wasabi plant, known by different names, such as Wasabia japonica and Eutrema wasabi. It grows naturally in cold, wet areas under tree cover, such as natural springs and rivers in deep valleys in Japan. It's rare to find wasabi plants outside Japan, although they have been found in places like China, Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to reproduce the unique combination of conditions that wasabi plants thrive in. It can also take wasabi plants up to three years to reach maturity. As a result, wasabi is considered by many experts to be the most difficult plant to grow commercially.
To make real wasabi, the root-like stems (called rhizomes) of the plant are grated with a circular motion. Doing so creates a green paste and releases isothiocyanates, which create a hot vapor. Real wasabi must be served immediately upon grating, because it loses its spicy flavor within 15-20 minutes.
If you've ever had real wasabi, you know that it's hot, but it's not hot like hot peppers, for example. Instead of hitting the mouth, wasabi's heat mainly affects the nose and nasal passages. Unlike the lingering heat of hot peppers, wasabi's heat tends to dissipate quickly, leaving a lingering sweet aftertaste.
You may have noticed that we've been talking about "real" wasabi up to this point. Is there such a thing as "fake" wasabi? Unfortunately, there is. In fact, most of the wasabi consumed in the United States isn't made from real wasabi plants. Some experts believe that only about 5% of the wasabi served in restaurants around the world is real wasabi.
Because wasabi plants are so difficult to grow and real wasabi is so expensive as a result, most of the wasabi consumed in the U.S. and many other areas around the world is fake. What's it made of? Most fake wasabi is a mixture of horseradish powder, mustard powder, cornstarch, and green food coloring.
This combination of ingredients seeks to imitate the taste and spiciness of real wasabi. In reality, it ends up being hotter and spicier, affecting the tongue and mouth rather than the nose. Real wasabi tends to be smoother and milder.