Most have seen and tasted it, but few dare to consume more than a drop of it. Wasabi, the daub of green paste found on almost all sushi platters, is a powerful flavor that can either enhance or scar one’s sushi experience depending on the amount, strength and personal endurance.
Wasabi is a type of horseradish taken from the root known as Wasabia japonica. It is placed under the same classification as cabbages and mustard. Wasabi is most often served on the side of sushi platters and mixed with soy sauce in a small dish to dip the sushi in before consuming. This mixture of wasabi and soy sauce is collectively called “wasabi-joyu” in Japanese. In other cases, a smidge of wasabi is placed between the rice and fish to not only stick them together, but to preserve the wasabi from exposure to air and making it stale.
Traditional sushi is often served in this manner. The taste of wasabi is either loved or hated. Many purists believe a sushi meal is simply not complete without wasabi. Others will do whatever they can to avoid having wasabi penetrate into the sushi, as they claim it leaves a strong, undesirable effect on the taste of the sushi and in their noses. Indeed, wasabi has a unique, intense flavor that tends to linger in the nose rather than the mouth like most spicy pastes. Contests are a common and often entertaining way to determine how much wasabi a person is able to handle, but these are ill-advised, as there is no quick remedy to calm the ultra-strong burning effect that will likely result from the consumption of too much wasabi all at once. Water has generally been found ineffective in preventing the tingling sensation from piercing the naval cavity.
Wasabi has recently become more readily available in grocery stores as the popularity of sushi and making homemade sushi has spread. Very likely, though, the wasabi found in these stores are partly artificial, due to the difficulty of cultivating enough wasabi roots to produce a mass output of wasabi. Wasabia japonica can only be grown under the most ideal conditions, which entail a shaded, mountainous area near a pure, constant flowing water source and without the help of pesticides or fertilizers. They also require a consistent temperature range between 46 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity in the summer months to offset the heat. Wasabi japonica is intolerant of direct sunlight and has not been found to grow well under any artificial conditions, such as greenhouses or the use of hydroponics. Some of the most successful areas for cultivating wasabi roots are the northern islands of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. In the United States, the Oregon coast and Blue Ridge Mountains have also successfully produced wasabi roots in mass quantity.
When it comes down to it, using wasabi in sushi meals is all a matter of personal taste and preference. Whether it’s mixed with soy sauce or eaten in its purest form, the only thing wasabi doesn’t bring to the table is boredom.