So, I am sure that I am behind the times in just realizing this fun factoid, but i recently learned, thanks to good old Iron Chef America, and chef Chalmerkittichai (say that three times fast), that traditionally, the Japanese do not think of wasabi as we do in the States; you know…that ground up little ball of paste perched at the side of your chopsticks, looking so innocent, but realistically capable of igniting your whole head in flames upon contact.
In fact, it is more commonly served and used for cooking in the form of a lush, leafy green, in which the root is used to flavor and spice up the cuisine, and does not pack as much of a punch as its Americanized sibling.
Mom…where does wasabi come from?
Well, glad you asked junior. It just so happens that wasabi leaves grow naturally on the edge of mountain valley stream beds in Japan, one of the only regions that produces the plant naturally, hence its popularity in that region of the world and its vast integration into Japanese dishes.
A wasabi by any other name…well…yeah it’ll still be spicy.
Also known as Japanese Horseradish, wasabi is a member of the Brassicaceae family. What the heck is that you are no doubt asking yourself, or perhaps you are asking, can you even pronounce that word Kristen? Well, the answer is that wasabi is surprisingly a part of the same family as mustard, as well as the cauliflower family, which is a flowering plant. The answer to the second question is no, I do not know how to pronounce that word, but plan to pretend I do and butcher it to pieces…but I digress.
Due to the expense and difficulty of cultivating wasabi, a very widely used substitute (imitation wasabi) is a mixture of (western) horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring; in American sushi restaurants this is generally referred to as “wasabi”, while genuine wasabi, which is rarely available, is referred to as “fresh wasabi”. Similarly, when wasabi is sold in tubes, the contents may be genuine wasabi, or it may be horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring, or it may be a mixture of the two. In Japan, horseradish is referred to as seiyo wasabi, in case you were wondering. Thanks Wikipedia.
In more traditional restaurants, the paste is usually prepared as needed by the customer using the root and a grater directly. Interestingly enough,once the paste is prepared, it will lose flavor within a mere 15 minutes! To prevent this from happening, most seasoned sushi chefs will cover the wasabi during preparation of the meal to keep the flavor sealed in tight until served. Next time you are eating at the bar in your favorite sushi restaurant and have the luxury of peering into the kitchen (my absolute favorite place to perch when sushi-ing it up), you will no doubt see the chefs cover this green treat and then place it between the fish and the rice to seal in the pungency for their patrons.
Wasabi leaves? Get right outta town!
Heck yeah, you heard me…I said leaves! Fresh leaves of wasabi can also be eaten and have some of the hot flavor of wasabi roots, adding a nice spicy addition to a salad mixture. Amazing right? I saw these leaves for the first time last night, and they look like they would make a deeelicious, healthy contribution to any dish with asian flare. Google wasabi leaf recipes and you will no doubt find some great uses, that is if you manage to get your hands on the sought after, rare leaves in the U.S. Point being, if you ever see these on a menu, order the dish and try it out! You never know when you will get another chance.
Wasabi. That’s hot.
No, my post has not been high-jacked by an early 2003 version of Paris Hilton. It just so happens that our little green friend packs a different kind of punch than the heat we are used applying that generally comes in the form of say, hot chili peppers. Why you ask? Good question young grasshopper! Because the burning sensations of wasabi are not oil-based, they are short-lived compared to the effects of chili peppers, and are easily washed away with another bite of food or liquid. The sensation is felt primarily in the nasal passage and can be quite painful depending on amount taken.
That wasabi is such a team player.
Aside from being super tasty, inhaling or sniffing wasabi vapor has an effect like smelling salts. Its pungency is so effective that its properties have even been tapped into by researchers attempting to create a smoke alarm for the deaf. One deaf subject participating in a test of the prototype awoke within 10 seconds of wasabi vapor being sprayed into his sleeping chamber. While that sounds frightening, and possibly like some form of illegal torture, its also a pretty neat little fact.
So, hopefully you found this all as interesting as I did. Although I’m afraid I am unable to refund the time spent reading this post, you can at least chalk it up to your fact learned for the day. So when you get home and kick those shoes off and flop down on the couch to watch a few hours of mind numbing reality television, the satisfying sense of un-guilty pleasure is on me!