Monday, June 24, 2013

Wasabi: The Paste with the Punch

Every sushi lover is familiar with that momentary eye-watering sizzle, comparable to a Mt.Fuji eruption in your nasal passages, followed by the euphoric endorphin rush that wasabi produces. Over the years I've heard many stories surrounding this enigmatic Asian rhizome and decided to investigate the matter further to appease my own curiosity and get the record straight.

What is REAL Wasabi?

True wasabi (Wasabia Japonica) is a plant that belongs to the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, mustard, cabbage and horseradish. Originally from the mountains of Japan, where it grows in the mountain streams in specially built centuries-old growing beds, it demands the highest environmental conditions. It is for this reason that the production of high quality water-grown wasabi has been decreasing throughout the world as the environment becomes more polluted. Acid rain in Japan and Asia are the main causes of the decline in the growing areas in that region. The last wasabi growing bed to have been built in Japan is reputed to be at least 200 years old.
The growing of wasabi is difficult, and is done by just a few families in Japan. As pollution degrades the growing environment, together with the fact that young people do not want to work in the inhospitable high mountain conditions, the number of families growing wasabi using the traditional methods has dropped dramatically. Even close to the source, it is rare to find fresh wasabi. When the fragile roots are available, they're expensive and sold only in gourmet stores packed in water-filled tubes.
Most spicy-food lovers must settle for reconstituted wasabi made from a powder of the dried root. The powder is mixed with a few drops of water to make a malleable paste. Although much of its fragrance is lost in drying, the spiciness isn't affected. Powdered wasabi can still bring tears to your eyes (its nickname in sushi-speak is namida or ''tears.'') Some wasabi devotees buy the condiment conveniently premixed in tubes, similar to toothpaste. The pastes tend to be much milder than powders. Both are widely available in Oriental markets and  even regular grocery stores, due to its increasing popularity.
According to Yoshi Newton, Owner of Ichiban Japanese Restaurant, wasabi is best made about 10 minutes before it is served. Ichiban's sushi chef prepares wasabi twice a day. When kept tightly covered and refrigerated, wasabi keeps its kick for five to six hours.

Are You Sure You're Getting the Real Thing?

What about that little dollop of green stuff on your plate of sushi–are you sure it's really wasabi? It's probably not. Restaurants commonly use a substitute mixture of regular horseradish powder, mustard powder, cornstarch and artificial color. It's cheaper than wasabi, but tastes nothing like the real thing.
If you make your own Japanese dishes and use wasabi paste from a tube, check the package to see if there's a grade shown. Prepared wasabi from Japan comes in three grades–Grade 1 means it's 100 percent wasabi. Grade 2 has about 25 percent wasabi. and Grade 3 has no real wasabi at all. Grade 1 is hard to find outside of Japan.

Could You Grow Your Own?
Bona fide wasabi is not easy obtain, as this plant is a rare and difficult plant to grow. Aside from its native Japan, it has been coaxed into cultivation in Taiwan. New Zealand, and parts of the United States (like Oregon), where conditions satisfy wasabi's demand for a cool, wet climate.

The best way to grow wasabi is by water cultivation, typically in gravelly beds along streams. The beds are irrigated by the flowing water, which keeps the roots flooded, but well-aerated. Soil cultivation doesn't produce a particularly good quality rhizome, and hydroponics has not been successful. Wasabi plants take two to three years to reach maturity, or longer if growing conditions are not optimal.

The Health Benefits
For centuries, authentic wasabi (Wasabia japonica) has been used in Asia for a number of health reasons. It is only in the last decade that these health benefits have been investigated in the West. 

Here are some benefits associated with real wasabi:
Kills harmful food borne bacteria
Reduces blood pressure
Kills cancer cells
Improves bone strength
Improves liver function
Detoxifies the body
Naturally anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial
Stimulates the immune system

The most common way of consuming wasabi is by eating it. Unfortunately, the green-colored horseradish blends that you find at most restaurants and Asian shops do NOT produce the same health benefits. If the label does not say 100% Pure Wasabia japonica, then you can be sure that you are eating the following ingredients (yes, even if they are not on the label):
- European Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
- FDA Colors – Yellow #5  and Blue #1 
- Mustard powder
- Tumeric powder
- Chilli powder (sometimes).
In 2009 an organization, the “World Wasabi Council” was formed by Wasabia japonica growers and manufacturers with the sole purpose of carrying out independent scientific tests to ensure that products that carry the “Authentic Wasabi” logo do not contain any European horseradish and/or artifical colorings. 

This is a major departure from the general accepted notion that food manufacturers can do what they like with the food that we put in our bodies. In this day and age there has been a major change of view. Now more and more consumers want to eat food that is actually good for them, as well as being tasty. It is expected that within the next couple of decades all food suppliers will be required to certify what they claim is in their food is actually there, and is not just a “look-and-taste-alike” product. 
In the meantime, if you want to be sure that you're accompanying your sushi dishes with the real thing, look for this logo:

And if you're still in the mood for dessert ...

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