You go to a Japanese restaurant for the first time and unknowingly, put a piece of green putty into your mouth. The next thing you know, your nose is on fire, your eyes are watering, and you feel like the air has been cut off. After a few sips of water, the sensation fades and your sinuses reopen. What happened? Well, you just experienced either wasabi or horseradish.
If you go to a high-end restaurant, you’ll get to taste real wasabi. This garnish is used to enhance the flavor of fish and it comes from the root of a plant called Wasabia japonica. One pound of the rhizome (the stem) costs about $75 because it grows partially submerged in running water. Farms aren’t able to replicate this growing environment, so wasabi must be harvested from local streams. This plant is also extremely delicate, dying quickly from contaminants and temperature changes.
How To Serve Real Wasabi
The root of the wasabi plant is grated and usually put between the rice and fish of the sushi dish. Covering the wasabi allows it to keep its flavor longer. A good chef knows just how much wasabi to put onto a piece of fish to showcase its flavor without overpowering it. You can tell real wasabi from fake wasabi based on the bill at the end of the meal and on the texture of the green lump. Real wasabi isn’t smooth, it’s usually gritty.
So… What’s Fake Wasabi?
Fake wasabi is powdered horseradish or mustard that’s dyed green and turned into a paste. This is the stuff most sushi restaurants serve with their sushi or sashimi. Both horseradish and wasabi have something in common. They contain the chemical allyl isothiocyanate. This is the stuff that makes your nose sting and your eyes water. Unlike the chemical in chili peppers, capsaicin, allyl isothiocyanate binds to the receptors in your nose instead of the pain receptors in your mouth.
Unfortunately, horseradish is a bit too strong and covers the taste of the fish. To truly enjoy high-quality sushi, with real wasabi, you’ll need to splurge a bit.