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Wasabi known as Wasabia japonica is famous for its swollen stem called a rhizome and is very central to Japanese cuisine for example wasabi zuke. Wasabi is a relative of the Brassicaceae family which includes cabbages and horseradish. Wasabi was first grown in Japan and has been cultivated for over the millennium.
Wasabi ‘King of the Herbs’ is tough to grow and requires a moist, shady environment. It grows naturally in mountain streambeds in Japan. The cultivated wasabi is called ‘Sawa’ when grown in semiaquatic conditions compared to ‘Oka’ when grown in the fields. Today, you can buy fresh wasabi leaves and stems all grown in Northern Ireland by Wasabi Crop.
Real fresh wasabi is expensive. The cheaper version is dispensed from a tube to give a green paste that is used to complement sushi dishes in restaurants. True wasabi is grated in front of the customer using a traditional Japanese Sharkskin board or something similar. Wasabi is so rare that even in Japan fake wasabi is used. This imitation wasabi is a mixture of horseradish, Chinese mustard and green food colouring.
Real wasabi paste looks and tastes quite different from the fake stuff. Rather than a uniform green, it is a mix of coarse light-green and white particles and has a flavour that is more than just zingy heat.
Wasabi has associated medicinal properties which are antibiotic in nature and are capable of inhibiting microbial growth and suppressing oral bacteria. In some research articles, wasabi was found to have anti-cancer properties in addition to anti-inflammatory activity.
Wasabi zuke is a popular pickled dish served in Japan and can be prepared by taking all parts of the wasabi plant. This chopping and mixing of all the leaves, flowers, leafstalks and the ground roots with salt water and sake including sugar. Wasabi Zuke can be a great dinner dish or even a suitable side dish, especially with drinks. These types of dishes are called kasuzuke (food pickled in the lees from sake brewing). Wasabi Zuke was developed by merchants in Fuchu which is modern-day Shizuoka which flourished in the Edo Period.
Today, Wasabi Zuke is modified to contain added spices, fragrance, and wasabi flavouring to boost its flavour. The related dishes are ‘wasabi-nori’, ‘wasabi-miso’ and ‘kazunoko’ (herring roe). Wasabi zuke means ‘pickled wasabi’ and it is a product of the Shizuoka Prefecture. Shizuoka City is the reported birthplace of wasabi in Japan.
Wasabi Zuke is available in Shizuoka but unfortunately, it is a rare and expensive delicacy away from this region – even in Japan! The Wasabi is grown on the mountain slopes along the Abe River in Shizuoka City. The central ingredients for Wasabi Zuke are the sake kasu/sake white lees which all came from the sake brewery in Shizuoka Prefecture. The other ingredients salt, brown cane sugar and the mirin/sweet sake are all made in Japan! – a truly Japanese favourite.
In Japanese cuisine, both the rhizome and the leaves of the wasabi plant can be used to create fantastic dishes. The rhizome can be grated over foods for added spice. Fresh wasabi leaves can be consumed, either fresh, pickled or to create Wasabi-Zuke. The ‘zingy heat’ of wasabi is not released until it is macerated in your mouth. Consequently, the flavour depends on how finely it is grated and how long it is exposed to air. Remember wasabi releases the volatile compound allyl isothiocyanate – the Wasabi Kick and flavour and heat dissipate in about 20 minutes. It is best to grate the wasabi rhizome just before you consume it, and use an oroshi grater or something similar.
Only true fresh wasabi can be found at speciality grocers and high-end restaurants. This product is usually sold as a rhizome (sometimes referred to as a root) or as a jarred paste. In addition, wasabi can be ready to use as a dried powder.
You can add real fresh wasabi to roasted legumes for extra spice or grate over fish and rice dishes. The more adventurous could spread fresh wasabi on your favourite sandwiches and if lucky served with your mashed potatoes at your favourite restaurant and politely finish off with a spiced up Bloody Mary with wasabi leaves and stems.
Wasabi Leaves and stems are available from Wasabi Crop – all grown freshly in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.