Et Tu, Wasabi?

A good while ago I wrote a post about my discovery that, despite my fondness for the exotic, tart-but-sweet condiment that I splash into olive oil whenever I have bread that needs dipping, I’ve never actually tasted balsamic vinegar. Instead I’ve just had a condiment made with regular wine vinegar and flavored with artificial caramel. It was sad news but perhaps at the same time comforting: I certainly still enjoy the taste of the “cheap” imitation and now I know that perhaps some day I can look forward to trying the real thing.

And thus it was with mixed emotions that I recently made a similar discovery: in spite of all the sushi I’ve eaten since getting up the nerve to try it during my freshman year of college, I’ve never actually eaten wasabi either.

Wasabi, it seems, is a difficult-to-cultivate root that looks a bit like a cross between a pineapple, an underripebanana, and a piece of fresh ginger. It’s a fragile plant that isn’t eager to reproduce and thus is only profitable if you can grow a great deal of it at once. But this, too, is difficult: Wikipedia names only a few regions in southern Japan where “large scale” cultivation is possible, and Pacific Farms, one of the few places in North America that grows it (and not exactly on a large scale!) gives this lengthy advice if you want to try planting your own wasabi:

 When ready, soak the seeds overnight. Using a good quality potting soil, slightly moisten and spread 1 inch wide. Place the seeds in one long row or several rows 1/4 inch in depth and spaced 1-2 inches apart, and cover with remaining 1/8 inch of soil, mist with water. The soil needs to remain slightly damp during the germination process, so mist daily. Light levels should be filtered sunlight and started indoors with a temperature range of 50-62 degrees F. Seeds should germinating in 10-14 days however, seeds can take up to 90 days to germinate. After germination it is suggested to move the seedlings into small pots or plug trays.

This isn’t so bad, I suppose. But Pacific Farms also says that, if you follow these instructions exactly in ideal climate conditions, the best germination rate you can expect is 30-40%. Oh, and then there’s a lengthy climate-controlling, pruning, and slug-discouraging process you have to go through till the wasabi grows to maturity.

The result of this is that, like balsamic vinegar, real wasabi is extremely expensive. “” (why do these websites exist?) says it can be as much as $100 a pound outside Japan.  Even the “homegrown” but authentic product sold at Pacific Farms retails at $22 for a box of “six small tubes.” At this price, the little packets of wasabi that come with a box of sushi from someplace like Whole Foods would make up about half of the entire $6-$8 cost. And that can’t be right.

Of course it isn’t. Like “balsamic vinegar,” the term “Wasabi” in America officially refers to a condiment called “Western Wasabi” in Japan, and also sometimes called by the more familiar term “horseradish plus green food coloring.”  Horseradish, which has the same mustard-like spiciness and also grows as a root, has a perfectly exciting flavor, and contains the same organosulfur (Allyl isothiocyanate or AITC*) that gives wasabi (and mustard) their “firey” quality. A much more rugged perennial plant that costs only about $1 a pound, it’s clearly a more economical choice for anyone selling sushi outside of perhaps the finest upscale restaurants. Certainly not for, say, a public school on the East coast with such a substantial Asian student population that it has its own Asian student dining center which serves fresh-made sushi.

But while it seems like an excellent substitute, it seems widely acknowledged that “real” and “Western” wasabi can be easily distinguished, even by someone without any practice. I hope I get the chance to try some day. Just maybe not the same day I get to try real Balsamic Vinegar.



* Actually, horseradish and wasabi don’t “contain” the pungent AITC. Instead they contain sinigrin and enzymes capable of breaking it down into AITC. Plain horseradish and wasabi are both odorless until they are grated, crushed, or shredded, at which point the enzymes are released from damaged cells and begin turning the sinigrin into the AITC chemical which so provokes your sinuses and that makes Calvin make this face.

Also interestingly, in much higher concentrations this chemical is apparently an effective insecticide. So, maybe don’t eat too much wasabi all at once ;-)



About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to Et Tu, Wasabi?

  1. derek says:

    another plant with similarly difficult growing conditions? tequila. some sad news about corn replacing tequila farms.

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