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Everything You Should Know About What Wasabi is

Let us answer all your questions about this traditional Japanese ingredient.

Chances are that you’ve seen wasabi on the menu at your favorite sushi restaurant or offered alongside your favorite poke bowl. This green paste has a spicy kick and helps to highlight the flavors of your favorite dishes. But what exactly is wasabi?

Today, we’re going to cover all there is to know about this spicy treat.

Wasabi is a green spicy paste that is made from a Japanese plant of the same name. It is a member of the Brassicaceae family alongside plants such as horseradish and mustard plants. 

In order to make wasabi, the root of the plant, also known as rhizome, is grated. This causes its compounds to start to break down, which gives the paste its signature texture and flavor. That is why fresh wasabi paste often tastes much better! 

freshly ground wasabi root

It’s also worth noting that the wasabi that is consumed in the majority of restaurants isn’t authentic. This is because real wasabi is so expensive to produce because of how long the plants need to mature. Most cheaper alternatives to real wasabi are actually made using horseradish, cornstarch, mustard flour, and green food coloring. So if you want to ensure that you’re enjoying the real thing, it will be important to take a look at the ingredients first.

Interestingly, all parts of the wasabi plant are edible. While the rhizome (root part) is used to make the classic spicy paste that we’re more familiar with, the leaves can also be consumed when fried in tempura batter. 

Wasabi can be eaten fresh, grated, or when powdered or made into a paste. You can’t beat the authentic taste of spicy wasabi with your sushi. The flowers and leaves of the wasabi plant have a hot peppery taste to them, whereas the stems of the wasabi plant are much milder. The stems of the wasabi plant are often pickled in Japan.


What Does Wasabi Taste Like?

Authentic wasabi has a bright, spicy flavor to it that will highlight the flavors of your favorite sushi dishes. This heat is often different from that of chili, as it won’t linger on the tongue. If you are trying authentic wasabi in an authentic Japanese sushi restaurant, the wasabi will often be carefully measured for each sushi dish. This is to ensure that you get the right hit of flavor for each part of the raw fish.

It’s important to note that wasabi imitations made using horseradish will leave a burn for much longer. This is because while horseradish and wasabi come from the same family of plants, they are not an exact match in terms of flavor and texture. So inauthentic wasabi made using horseradish or even mustard will completely obscure the flavor of your sushi because there is too much of it included.

As we mentioned briefly above, you can also eat other parts of the wasabi plant. The stems, flowers, and leaves are also suitable for consumption and will have varying flavors compared to the wasabi root. The stems of the wasabi plant have a much milder flavor and are often pickled to get the best flavor from them. The flowers and leaves of the wasabi plant have a much hotter flavor than the stems and are often fried in tempura batter.

If you want to know how to tell the difference between real wasabi and fake wasabi, you should first take a look at the texture of your wasabi. You will notice that authentic wasabi has a gritty, grated texture. The fake thing made using horseradish will appear as a smooth paste with a thicker consistency.


Why is Wasabi so Spicy?

There’s something unique about the spiciness of authentic wasabi. But what makes it so spicy, and why does this spiciness differ from that of chilis?

This is down to a chemical in the wasabi called allyl isothiocyanate. Interestingly, this particular chemical works on the receptors in your nose rather than on your tongue, so this is why the heat of authentic wasabi doesn’t tend to last for as long as that of fake wasabi or chilis. 

The size of the allyl isothiocyanate chemical is much smaller than the capsaicin chemical found in hot peppers and chilis. It also isn’t as oily as capsaicin, so won’t sit on the tongue as capsaicin does. Allyl isothiocyanate typically tends to vaporize, finding its way into the receptors in your nose, which then makes the wasabi appear even spicier.

Another thing to note is that if you were to eat too much chili, you could use yogurt or milk to soothe your tongue. However, you can’t do this if you’ve eaten too much wasabi. You will have to wait for the heat to die down over time.


What is Wasabi Made of?

If someone were to say the name wasabi to you, chances are that you think of that spicy green paste that you traditionally eat with your sushi. So you may not have paid much attention to what the spicy paste is actually made from.

Wasabi is made from the root of the wasabi plant. Authentic wasabi has a gritty texture once it has been freshly grated, with a unique heat that dissipates more easily than that of chili peppers. The paste is made by grating or grinding the wasabi rhizome. Interestingly, all parts of the wasabi plant are edible, so you may also notice the stems, flowers, and leaves on the menu in authentic Japanese restaurants.

This fascinating rhizome is often referred to as Japanese horseradish because of its unique heat and the fact that it belongs to the same family of plants as western horseradish. In fact, cheaper imitations of wasabi make use of horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food coloring because of how expensive the wasabi plant is to harvest.

The wasabi plant is native to Japan, as well as other regions including South Korea, Russia, and Sakhalin. However, Japan remains the biggest producer of the wasabi plant because of how fussy the plant is in regards to its growing conditions. Other countries have tried to grow wasabi, however, nothing beats the authentic Japanese wasabi.


Is Wasabi Actually Horseradish?

It may surprise you to learn that you actually haven’t tried real wasabi in the vast majority of restaurants that you have been to. This is because real wasabi is so expensive to grow and produce, so cheaper imitations are often used. In fact, in around 95% of restaurants, the fake wasabi alternative is often used instead.

Horseradish is used as one of the main ingredients in these imitation condiments to help get the signature heat of the wasabi. Mustard is often used too. So this is where the confusion around wasabi and horseradish can arise. It doesn’t help that both plants belong to the same family, either!

Some fake wasabi pastes will even use a tiny amount of wasabi to get the flavor but replace the bulk of the root with the cheaper horseradish. So if you want to ensure that you’re getting the real thing, it will be important to make sure that you check the ingredients first.

To create a cheaper alternative to the expensive wasabi, horseradish is often combined with mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food coloring to make it appear like the authentic thing. However, you will notice that the flavor and texture vary drastically from the real thing. Fake wasabi made using horseradish will be smoother in texture and have a heat that lasts longer on the palate.


Is Wasabi Expensive?

Yes, wasabi is a very expensive condiment. This is because it is notoriously difficult to grow. The plant is native to Japan, which even to this day remains the greatest exporter of wasabi plants. The wasabi plant is very picky about the conditions it grows in, and doesn’t tend to thrive all too well when it is removed from its natural environment of ponds.

The wasabi plant can also take anywhere between 15 months and 2 years to grow fully. This lengthy process will mean that it will take even longer for you to be able to enjoy your favorite wasabi treat. Wasabi is grown in other places around the world too, including Korea, the UK, and Taiwan. 

This is a plant that is very fussy about the conditions it grows in. In order to grow quality wasabi, the plant will need an optimal temperature of between 45℉ and 75℉. These plants need to be planted where spring water can run around them, ensuring that they have all the nutrients they need. While the wasabi plant was traditionally grown at the foot of mountains, it doesn’t tend to do so well when removed from these optimal growing conditions.

So because this plant is so hard to grow and takes so long to mature before it can be harvested, this naturally pushes up the price of authentic wasabi. In fact, real, authentic wasabi will cost you anywhere in the region of $250 per kilo. So you can see why some producers and restaurants will opt for the much cheaper alternative!


How Can You Tell if Wasabi is Real?

The best way to tell whether you are eating authentic wasabi and not some imitation made using horseradish is to check the texture. If you are eating real wasabi, the texture will be gritty, and you will notice that the signature heat doesn’t burn for as long on the tongue. 

Fake wasabi made using horseradish and other ingredients has a much smoother texture as the ingredients have been pureed. You will also notice that the heat lasts for much longer on the tongue, as different ingredients have been used to try and recreate the signature heat of authentic wasabi.

If your wasabi appears to be pasty and thick, there’s a very good chance that this is fake. Authentic wasabi tends to have a much grittier texture because it has been freshly grated. So if your wasabi has a gritty texture, you can rest assured that it is likely to be the authentic thing.


Can You Grow Wasabi in America?

You can grow wasabi in America, however, this plant is notoriously difficult to grow. This is because it is very fussy about the conditions that it is grown in. 

Your wasabi plant will need to be grown in fairly shady conditions, with heavily moist soil that isn’t wet. It will also need to be grown within a specific temperature range of between 45℉ and 75℉. It doesn’t tend to cope all that well with large changes in temperature, either. So you will need to ensure that the conditions are as consistent as possible in order for your wasabi plants to thrive.

During the summertime, wasabi tends to thrive in areas of high humidity. It doesn’t tolerate direct sunlight all that well, so tends to be grown under shade cloths to protect the leaves from wilting. Because of these fussy conditions, it can be difficult to grow in different areas. Wasabi tends to thrive when grown in stream beds because this closely resembles their natural habitat in the mountainous regions of Japan.

Even though wasabi plants are very fussy about where and how they can be grown, it has been grown successfully in North America. It has been known to thrive in the Oregon Coat rainforests, as well as in the Blue Ridge Mountain regions of Tennesee and North Carolina. This is because the growing conditions in these regions closely resemble the water quality, climate, and sunlight conditions needed for wasabi to flourish.

Interestingly, wasabi hasn’t thrived all that well when grown using hydroponic or greenhouse methods. 


Does Wasabi Only Grow in Japan?

No, wasabi doesn’t only grow in Japan. Wasabi is grown in several other countries around the world, including New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, Israel, Taiwan, North America, and the UK.

However, wasabi tends to thrive better in its home country, Japan. Japan still remains the largest producer of the wasabi plant because of how well the plant grows in its native conditions. Unsurprisingly, Japan is also the largest consumer of the wasabi plant, with a whopping 1,300 tonnes of the stuff being eaten every single year. This pricy plant can reach an even higher price if it’s the authentic water-grown variety on offer.

The wasabi plant is naturally found in river valleys, where the plant can stay protected from direct sunlight. In these areas, the roots can also stay buried in running underground water, ensuring that they have the nutrients they need to thrive.

Wasabi plants tend to be harvested in the Nagano, Kochi, Iwate, Shimane, Shizuoka, and Oita prefectures of Japan, among many other different areas. These areas tend to be the heaviest producers of the wasabi plant.


Is Wasabi Good for Your Health?

Yes, it is thought that wasabi is generally good for your health. There are thought to be many health benefits from this tasty condiment, including antibacterial properties, anti-inflammatory effects, as well as improving bone and brain health.

The great news is that authentic wasabi is also much more beneficial for your health than the fake imitations made using normal horseradish. Real wasabi has higher quantities of potassium and fiber, which are essential nutrients in order for us to live happy and healthy lives. However, you won’t want to eat wasabi in large quantities because of the higher sodium content.

It is also thought that wasabi has certain anti-cancer properties. This is all down to the isothiocyanates found in the wasabi. These antioxidants work to eliminate free radicals, which are known to cause certain types of cancer.

You will only get these great benefits from real, authentic wasabi. So even though the real thing is a lot pricier than fake wasabi that has been made using horseradish, it will be worth it in the long run.


Why is Real Wasabi so Expensive?

So now that we’ve discussed how the fake wasabi made using horseradish can’t compare to the real thing, you may be wondering why real wasabi is so expensive. Real wasabi can sell for anywhere between $160 up to a whopping $250 on the market. However, nothing can compare to the real thing. So people who enjoy traditional wasabi with their sushi will be more than willing to pay a premium price for the real thing.

Real wasabi is so expensive because it is so difficult to grow. The plant is notoriously fussy about its growing conditions. It doesn’t tend to cope well with drastic changes in temperature, with sudden changes being enough to kill off the entire plant. Wasabi doesn’t like direct sunlight, so will start to wilt away if left exposed to the sun. The plants tend to be grown under shade cloths because of this fact.

Wasabi is grown in several different countries around the world, however, it tends to be mostly grown and harvested in its traditional Japan because of how fussy the plant is. Real wasabi plants tend to flourish better in their traditional habitats of streambeds in the mountainous areas in Japan.

Another factor to consider is that real wasabi plants take even longer to mature than horseradish. It will take between 15 months to 2 years for the wasabi plants to become ready for harvesting, which can push up the price of the plant. It is a very difficult plant to grow commercially, which is why it is one of the most expensive ingredients on the market.

Some producers tend to make a much cheaper alternative using horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food coloring. This is a smoother paste that tends to stay hotter on the tongue for longer. However, it is much cheaper to produce, so you are more likely to encounter this variant of “wasabi” than you are the real thing.


Final Thoughts

So there you have it! Wasabi is a spicy green paste that is often consumed alongside sushi to help highlight the flavor of the raw fish. At one time it was even thought that the spiciness and medicinal properties of wasabi helped to counteract the risk of food poisoning from consuming raw fish.

Wasabi is made from the wasabi plant. It comes from the rhizome – the root – of the plant, which is often grated or ground either against a grater or authentic sharkskin to get the chemical compounds working for that signature heat. Although all parts of the plant are edible, so you may even spot pickled wasabi stems or flowers and leaves fried in tempura batter.

There are often fake imitations of wasabi in restaurants because of how expensive the authentic plant is to harvest. Real wasabi will be gritty in texture, with an intense heat that dissipates fairly quickly from the tongue. Fake wasabi is made using horseradish as well as other ingredients, including food coloring. This is much smoother as it has been made into a pureed paste, and the heat lasts for longer.

To ensure that you’re getting the real deal from your grocery store or sushi restaurant, make sure to check the ingredients before you purchase your wasabi!

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Written by Rocco Smith

Rocco is from Sanibel Island, Florida, and a recent graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor’s in Editing, Writing, and Media. With seven years’ experience in the restaurant industry as a cook, server, bartender, and more, he is deeply passionate about intertwining his fondness for food with his love of language.