Will the Real Wasabi Please Stand Up

by Preston Brady III, Herbscapes.com 2023

If you think horseradish is horseradish by any name, then you would be, I am sorry to tell you, incorrect. Wrong. Not precise. For those of you who don’t already know it, please make sure you are seated before you read this shocking revelation: fake wasabi is a thing. A big, culinary thing. Chances are very good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) that the last time you were out wining and dining, and took excitement in the offering of the sacred wasabi as a delicate condiment to your fish or other entrée, that it wasn’t wasabi at all. It was horseradish disguised as wasabi – a root taken through the beauty parlor and dyed green to resemble the elusive. real thing. No! you say.

Yes. statically, almost anywhere in the world including Japan, you have about a 5% chance of being served real Wasabi. In some places such as the U.S. you have about a 1% chance of being served real wasabi.

Wasabi is said to be the most difficult plant in the world to grow, pickier than Russell Crowe on a movie set. Too much sunlight and wasabi fades into oblivion. You know how if you forget to water certain plants and they start to wilt but come back to life with a generous drink? Not wasabi. The root also does not tolerate too many temperature swings. It needs cool weather – such as in the fall and spring, and then humid conditions such as in the summer. It needs water all of the time but too much water kills it. The soil has to be perfectly drained. It’s so hard to grow wasabi that a gentleman in Washington state figured out the best conditions to grow wasabi in greenhouses (after years of trial and error) and trademarked the secret which he sells to certain other growers. In case you have already given up on growing your own, Amazon has a seller selling what is purported to be real wasabi powder. Check it out at your own risk…

I found some wasabi plant starts at thewasabistore.com and ordered 10 of them. The price goes down from $17.00 a shoot to $10.00 a shoot in quantity. Once they arrive and I have stared the project I will update periodically on the experiment. So how do you know the difference between horseradish and wasabi? I couldn’t say from experience but most connoisseurs say this:

  1. Real wasabi has a grainy texture. If you receive a gooey green paste that’s most likely horseradish pureed and food color dyed green.
  2. Real wasabi is not as hot/spicy as horseradish. When eaten it at first has a mild, sweet taste with a quickly fading heat.
  3. Real wasabi should be grated at the table and then consumed within 20 minutes. That’s right – it looses it’s full rich flavor soon after being grated.

All of this is not to degrade horseradish – I have a plant growing in a large container, and the fresh root, in moderation is a great compliment to a number of dishes including fish. Maybe someone should start a change.org petition to encourage restaurateurs to fess up, to just go ahead and offer and serve undyed horseradish with their sushi and other dishes. There’s nothing wrong with horseradish if you like that hot, spicy taste, and maybe wasabi has gained so much notoriety because it is so elusive and expensive. By the way, white vinegar or sugar can be added to horseradish to tone down the punch. Okay, so now you are craving wasabi. Good luck!

Fresh wasabi stems, by Sabigirl at English Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25309740

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