Wasabi (わさび（山葵）?, originally 和佐比; Wasabia japonica or Eutrema japonica), is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbages, horseradish, and mustard. It is also called Japanese horseradish, although horseradish is a different plant (which is often used as a substitute for wasabi). Its stem is used as a condiment and has an extremely strong flavor. Its hotness is more akin to that of a hot mustard than that of the capsaicin in a chili pepper, producing vapours that stimulate the nasal passages more than the tongue. The plant grows naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan. The two main cultivars in the marketplace are W. japonica 'Daruma' and 'Mazuma', but there are many others.
Wasabi is generally sold either as a stem, which must be very finely grated before use, as dried powder in large quantities, or as a ready-to-use paste in tubes similar to travel toothpaste tubes. Because it grows mostly submerged, it is a common misconception to refer to the part used for wasabi as a root or sometimes even a rhizome, while it is fact the stem of the plant, with the characteristic pock marks where old leaves fell off or were collected.
In some high-end restaurants, the paste is prepared when the customer orders, and is made using a grater to grate the stem; once the paste is prepared, it loses flavour in 15 minutes if left uncovered. In sushi preparation, sushi chefs usually put the wasabi between the fish and the rice because covering wasabi until served preserves its flavor.
Fresh wasabi leaves can be eaten, having the spicy flavor of wasabi stems.
Because the burning sensations of wasabi are not oil-based, they are short-lived compared to the effects of chili peppers, and are washed away with more food or liquid. The sensation is felt primarily in the nasal passage and can be quite painful depending on the amount consumed.
Legumes (peanuts, soybeans, or peas) may be roasted or fried, then coated with wasabi powder mixed with sugar, salt, or oil and eaten as a crunchy snack. Inhaling or sniffing wasabi vapor has an effect like smelling salts, a property exploited 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 sprayed into his sleeping chamber. The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the researchers for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to wake people in event of an emergency.
Wasabi is difficult to cultivate, and that makes it quite expensive. Due to its high cost, a common substitute is a mixture of horseradish, mustard, starch and green food coloring. Outside of Japan, it is rare to find real wasabi plants. Often packages are labeled as wasabi, but the ingredients do not actually include wasabi plant. Although the taste is similar between wasabi and horseradish, wasabi is green and hotter. In Japan, horseradish is referred to as seiyō wasabi (西洋わさび?, "western wasabi"). In the United States, true wasabi is generally found only at specialty grocers and high-end restaurants.
The chemical in wasabi that provides for its initial pungency is the volatile allyl isothiocyanate, which is produced by hydrolysis of natural rhizome thioglucosides (conjugates of the sugar glucose, and sulfur-containing organic compounds); the hydrolysis reaction is catalyzed by myrosinase and occurs when the enzyme is released on cell rupture caused by maceration — e.g., grating — of the plant's rhizome.
The unique flavor of wasabi is a result of complex chemical mixtures from the broken cells of the rhizome, including those resulting from the hydrolysis of thioglucosides into glucose and methylthioalkyl isothiocyanates:
- 6-methylthiohexyl isothiocyanate
- 7-methylthioheptyl isothiocyanate
- 8-methylthiooctyl isothiocyanate
One hundred grams of wasabi stem contains:
- Calories: 109 kCal
- Fat: 0.63 g
- Carbohydrates: 23 g
- Fibre: 7.8 g
- Protein: 4.8 g
Few places are suitable for large-scale wasabi cultivation, and cultivation is difficult even in ideal conditions. In Japan, wasabi is cultivated mainly in these regions:
|Prefecture||Cultivated in water||Cultivated in soil||Total|
There are also numerous artificial cultivation facilities as far north as Hokkaido and as far south as Kyushu. As the demand for real wasabi is very high, Japan has to import a large amount of it from China, Ali Mountain of Taiwan, and New Zealand. In North America, a handful of companies and small farmers cultivate Wasabia japonica.
Wasabi is often grated with a metal oroshigane, but some prefer to use a more traditional tool made of dried sharkskin with fine skin on one side and coarse skin on the other. A hand-made grater with irregular teeth can also be used. If a shark-skin grater is unavailable, ceramic is usually preferred.
The two kanji characters "山" and "葵" do not correspond to their pronunciation in Japanese. The two characters actually refer to the Chinese word for mountain Asarum, as the plant's leaves resemble those of a member of Asarum species, in addition to its ability to grow on shady hillsides. The word, in the form 和佐比, using the characters' original Chinese pronunciations to approximate the Japanese word wasabi, first appears in the Heian period work The Japanese Names of Medical Herbs (本草和名 Honzō Wamyō?), written in 918.
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- Ina et al. 1989, ibid.
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