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Wasabi, The Green Taste You Crave (Or You Should)

Wasabi Root

Wasabia japonica is an amazing root. I have no clue how the Japanese figured out you could actually eat the stuff. I suppose some starving peasant was digging around looking for something, anything, edible, and wasabi was what he brought home to the wife. No word on whether he recovered fully from the beating, but he’d surely discovered something important. (In the food world, at least.) If he was lucky, he went on to become very rich, with all those Wally Wasabi franchises and all.

What does this magical plant taste like? Some say like horseradish. It’s actually a member of the cruciferate vegetables, which include cabbage, turnips and mustard. Fresh, grated wasabi isn’t terribly zesty, in fact. The flavor’s been described as “hot and fiery without burning, with a sweet finish that lingers.”

Most Americans have never tasted true wasabi, even in upscale Japanese restaurants and sushi bars. It’s in extremely short supply, this wonderful rhizome. It’s difficult to cultivate, you see, and there’s a serious research effort under way in Japan aimed at solving this menacing social crisis. In the meantime, you’re more likely to be served colored horseradish, maybe with a bit of mustard in it.

Wasabi Paste

Other than the flavor, is there anything else special about wasabi? Well, there’s the neon-green color, which is surprisingly hard to match. (Another point against the fake paste in the tube.) There are some important nutritional positives, though. It’s been demonstrated to be effective against certain bacteria that cause food poisoning; a very important fact when served with raw fish. (Horseradish doesn’t have this property.) There are likely long-term anticancer effects as well. There are even reports of anti-parasitic properties.

Besides serving with sushi, what can you do with the stuff? How ‘bout putting a bit in your next guacamole? It adds a delightful heat that’s different from jalapeño chiles (or Serranos, my favorite in guac). Make a sauce with it for roast beef, like you would a creamy horseradish sauce. Not only with the color intrigue your friends, the flavor is a bit different too; richer, sweeter. Put a little in your barbeque sauce, especially if you’re serving it with fish. (Yes, fish!) And if you want a truly different Bloody Mary, replace the horseradish with wasabi. Be careful, though; once you try that, you may never go back to “plain” Bloody Marys. Chef Nigel Slater uses horseradish in many dishes; replace some or all of the horseradish with fresh wasabi and you’ll be cooking like Nigel, only better!

Check the label before you buy, though. Most manufacturers will state “western wasabi” in the ingredients. That’s horseradish, as discussed above. Oh, it’s hot; plenty hot. But not the same flavor. Cutting with mustard doesn’t help either. No, the real thing’s not like those condiments. If you find some hon-wasabi, though, be prepared to open the piggy bank. Wide. (Or take out yet another mortgage on the house.) The stuff’s not cheap, and once it’s escaped Japan and landed on our shores it’s Really Expensive.

But worth it…

Crank Up the (Green Goodness) Heat!

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