Friday, November 8, 2013


Those of us who are sushi lovers are well-acquainted with wasabi, that pinch of pale green paste that sits to one side of the plate and, when smeared sparingly on the sushi, produces a taste reaction somewhere between mild heat and sinus-destroying explosions. Click to read more...
In many sushi bars, the paste is smeared directly on the rice, then capped by the fish, as true wasabi's zing evaporates in a quarter hour or less. But what else do you know about this root?
Subject to many diseases and pests, wasabia japonica is related to mustard and cabbages as well as horseradish. This delicate little plant with white flowers, a green, warty root and pretty leaves grows wild only in certain parts of Japan, often in mountains on the gravel of river beds where a flow of the essential cold, pure water is constant. It takes 18 months to two years to grow a usable root about the size of a travel-size toothpaste tube. Wasabi is commercially cultivated in Japan's Ise Peninsula, but also in New Zealand, China, and the mountains of North Carolina.
Due to its chemical properties, once the real root is grated, it loses its pungency quickly. Traditionally, wasabi root is grated on a shagreen-skin grater (shagreen is shark skin, once used as a leather but generally found now only in antique stores on 1930's cigarette cases ). Failing a shagreen grater, a metal oroshigani (a flat bamboo grater with tiny raised teeth) is used. These are easily found in ceramic. The finer the grating, the more pungent the flavor, a truly microscopic powder will rise into your nasal and sinus areas like the fires of hell. And speaking of fires, there have been experiments to use the powder as a fire alarm for deaf people. Amazing what you can find on the internet.
So what's a sushi lover to do about this essential flavor? In most restaurants, you'll get a still-searing combination of "western" horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. That powder in the little round container? If it had any real wasabi powder in it, you couldn't tell because it's long lost its flavor. Ditto for the tubes, available in all Asian markets and most western grocery stores.
Real wasabi enthusiasts claim the taste of the genuine article is far finer than its popular generic substitute, with a back-of-the-mouth heat that doesn't override the front-of-the-mouth fish taste. Chefs like it in other dishes, including mashed potatoes, salad dressings, and soups. But don't spend too much time looking for the product; at over a hundred bucks a pound, it's usually available only through specialty vendors, or at very high-end restaurants. It should be grated tableside. Taste it quickly; you've only got 15 minutes!
To mix the powder, use 1/4 tsp water to a heaping tsp powder, stir until it forms a paste. Do not make large amounts in advance, as it quickly looses its sparkle.
If you're intent on savoring the real thing, try this web site:

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