Condiments are a table classic in almost every culture across the world. In the west, you will see ketchup on every dinner table. While the east has a variety of famous condiments now adopted across the west like soy sauce and duck sauce, when you think of Japan, all people think of one condiment, wasabi. Wasabi is the green stuff you were served with your sushi, the one with quite a punch. Rich in history, flavor, and burn wasabi is becoming more and more popular across western cuisine.

What is Wasabi?

Wasabi, “real wasabi”, is created by freshly grinding the rhizomes of the Wasabi japonica or Japanese horseradish. Part of the Brassicaceae or horseradish and mustard family, Wasabi has a similar taste and burn to these condiments, but wasabi packs a punch that is stronger than its cousins. Real wasabi, is however is not what most of us in the west eat, in fact majority of the ‘wasabi’ found in western restaurants and markets sell a mixture of horseradish, mustard and food coloring. Sorry to let everyone down, but it is true, most of us have never had real wasabi.

This can be pretty shocking to most people; however, the beauty of real wasabi is that it is meant to be consumed within 15 minutes of being ground. Wasabi japonica plant, which is the source of real wasabi is not easy to grow and is quite expensive. These factors make acquiring and serving fresh wasabi quite difficult for your regular sushi restaurants and especially supermarkets. That’s why most of us eat some combination of ingredients with horseradish and food coloring as wasabi.

Why So Hot?

This imitation wasabi has a much stronger and deeper burn. Real wasabi which grows along the streams and river banks in the mountainous regions of Japan, has a similar burn that is much smoother. Neither the taste nor the burn overpowers the sushi with which it is served. Wasabi is a condiment that is meant to compliment the flavors and textures of sushi and sashimi and never outshine them. The short and sweet burn in real wasabi, always felt heaviest in the nasal cavity causes its burn in a different way then peppers.

Normal peppers are hot due to Capsaicin, which is a chemical found in all chili peppers. This is where the heat comes from and burns in your mouth and throat where the capsaicin receptors are. Wasabi has a different burn, caused by the volatile compound of allyl isothiocyanate. The receptors for this chemical are located in the nose, which is why wasabi deliver a punch up your nasal cavity. Especially the horseradish made imitation wasabi can clear anyone’s sinuses.

Past and Now

Wasabi is becoming popular in the west; however, it is not a newly used spice or condiment. A brief look at history of wasabi can take you back to the Asuka and Heian period in Japan’s history. It was not until the Early Edo period that wasabi began to be cultivated. So, there are nearly 1500 years of rich history of the uses of wasabi for eating raw or grinded for a food condiment and medical use.

Today’s world wasabi is carving out a place in kitchens, supermarkets, and restaurants across the west. What was a well-kept Japanese secret for centuries is now becoming a star ingredient in a variety of fusion cuisine. Popularity of wasabi has risen exponentially around the world with along with the popularity of sushi. Real or imitation wasabi is a condiment that delivers a unique and distinct burn and flavor that is definitely a must try.