A Little Spark to a Cool Dish!

Some people like to mix it with soya sauce, others like to dab it on the sushi, and there are those who avoid it all together. Wasabi, a condiment that is traditionally used in the preparation of sushi, has been part of the Japanese culture for over 400 years.

The powerful flavour of wasabi is the perfect complement to the light and distinctive taste of raw fish. Although it is very hot in taste, it differs from the fiercely hot chilli-based hot sauces. In fact, the pungency of wasabi is similar to that of horseradish or hot mustard, and it may catch people off-guard at first because its effects are immediately felt in the nasal passage, though they quickly dissipate.

The origin of its cultivation is estimated to have taken place at the top of Mont Wasabi around 1600. It is said that a villager found wild wasabi by chance on the side of the road and decided to take some of it home to plant it in the fresh trickling waters of the Idogashira River. The wasabi plant thrived so well in such an environment that it led to its cultivation in that particular region. Today, a memorial monument bearing the inscription “The Origin of Wasabi Cultivation” is erected, in Shizuoka City, where the cultivation began.

Although wasabi cultivation dates from the 17th century, it was used for medicinal purposes several centuries earlier. Actually, the word “wasabi” can be found in the oldest Japanese botanical dictionary, which was compiled between 794 and 1185.

The Japanese tradition of using wasabi in the preparation of sushi is linked to its original use as a medicinal herb, which acted as an antidote to food poisoning. Furthermore, many studies have indicated that eating wasabi is very beneficial to health. Positive effects, amongst others, include anti-bacterial properties and a diminution in heart diseases and strokes. Early studies have also shown that wasabi possesses anti-inflammatory properties.

Wasabi root, as well as fresh wasabi, are extremely scarce and can only be found in a small percentage of sushi restaurants in Japan, and in even fewer sushi restaurants around the world. The rarity of fresh wasabi can be attributed to the particular set of natural circumstances that are needed to grow it. For wasabi to do well, it has to constantly bathe in pristine, chilly water with the right mineral balance. These conditions can be found in the melted snows that trickle through the volcanic soil in the regions of Izu and Nagano, and in very few other regions of the world. This is why sushi chefs take much care in the preparation of fresh wasabi. That is, providing they can obtain it, of course…

To prepare fresh wasabi, sushi chefs grate the root on a special grater called “same-gawe”, which is made of shark skin. The “same-gawe” is used to ensure that the root is ground finely enough to turn into a paste, which is of a green colour. Once in the form of a paste, it must immediately be covered–if exposed, it would only keep for 15 minutes.

The most common form of wasabi found in North American and Japanese sushi restaurants is a ready-to-use paste that can be a mixture of powdered wasabi root, horseradish, and hot mustard. This paste has a greater pungency and can stay uncovered much longer than fresh wasabi paste.

No matter how you add wasabi to your dish, its powerful flavour will make your sushi-eating experience memorable and its numerous positive effects on good health certainly worthwhile.