Wasabi is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbages, horseradish, and mustard. It is also called Japanese horseradish, although it is not actually from the horseradish species of plants. Its root is used as a condiment and has an extremely strong flavour. Its hotness is more akin to that of a hot mustard than that of the capsaicin in a chilli 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.
Wasabi is generally sold either as a root which is very finely grated before use, or as a ready-to-use paste in tubes similar to travel toothpaste tubes. In restaurants the paste is prepared when the customer orders, and is made using a grater to grate the root; once the paste is prepared, it loses flavour in 15 minutes. In sushi preparation, sushi chefs usually put the wasabi between the fish and the rice because covering wasabi until served preserves its flavour.
Fresh wasabi leaves can be eaten, having the spicy flavour of wasabi roots.
Because the burning sensations of wasabi are not oil-based, they are short-lived compared to the effects of chilli 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 amount taken.
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 vapour 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 vapour being sprayed into his sleeping chamber. This was “rewarded” with the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to wake people in event of an emergency.
True Wasabi and Western Wasabi
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, and green food colouring. 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, they are easily distinguished. In Japan, horseradish is referred to as seiyō wasabi , “western wasabi”).
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.