Light green, smooth, and sometimes – dare we say – deceiving, we explore the differences between real and fake wasabi.
When you walk through the doors of any sushi restaurant, the first thing you might hear is a loud greeting: irasshaimase, from the staff. Customers at tables might have their necks craned, looking at sushi on coloured plates and under plastic covers, making their rounds on a conveyer belt. And as you are seated and finally reach for a plate of plump sashimi atop vinegared beds of rice, your sushi experience would not be complete without dipping it into a saucer of soy sauce and a spoonful of wasabi on the side. But is what you are consuming actually authentic?
Wasabi has become a necessary condiment to accompany almost any sushi plate and platter. However, the green, playdough-esque paste that has made a home in many of our favourite restaurants might not actually contain any real wasabi.
ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT GOLD
The main (and only) ingredient used to make real wasabi comes from the Wasabia japonica plant. While a one-ingredient condiment might seem lacking and underwhelming at first glance, Wasabia japonica is notoriously difficult to cultivate. The one to two years it takes to grow and the finicky conditions this growth requires put a hefty price tag on this commodity. Unless you happen to live near a rocky riverbed in Japan – where this plant has grown naturally since Japan’s days of old – a casual meal of raw fish and real Wasabia japonica might cost you more than you are willing to pay.
The fake wasabi we are accustomed to eating at most sushi restaurants, however, does not make use of Wasabia japonica at all – which also makes it cheaper and more readily accessible. Most are simply a blend of European horseradish, mustard and green food dye, with other added ingredients varying from place to place or tube to tube. And although there really isn’t anything quite like the real McCoy, we might learn to be grateful for the rise of fake wasabi, for the sake of our pockets and sushi-loving stomachs.
IS THE TASTE IN THE PASTE?
The appearance of Wasabia japonica’s roots or rhizomes – the part of the plant that is grated to produce fresh wasabi – is a far cry from the enticingly smooth, bright green paste that we usually find in containers at restaurants or in tubes at the grocery store. With a turnip-like shape and greenish-brown, scale-encrusted body, grated fresh wasabi comes out chunkier-looking and sometimes less saturated in colour than its imitation counterpart.
Freshly grated Wasabia japonica – which lacks the teary kick of horseradish and mustard that fake wasabi gives – encompasses hints of a milder spice, like a gentle fire lapping at your senses. This also means that when paired with raw fish, real wasabi works to enhance the delicate flavour of your sushi or sashimi, instead of competing against it. While this all sounds great, the spice that comes from Wasabia japonica tends only to last about 15 minutes after being grated, adding to the already elusive nature of this root.
An authentic experience always sounds more enticing. However, if you love the burning sensation of wasabi sneaking its way up your nasal passage, or the feeling of tears pooling in the crevices of your eyes, then fake wasabi might still serve up a more enjoyable and fuss-free experience.