Sushi Lessons: Wasabi - Insist on the Real Deal

ic: Fresh Wasabi at Daio Wasabi Farm in Japan

Did you know that green glob next to your ginger at most sushi places is actually not wasabi? It is a horseradish blend, laden with green food coloring. Mind blown? Mine was too. The first time I staged (worked for free) at a restaurant, I was asked to make wasabi. I knew wasabi was a root, so I was puzzled when the chef brought over a bag of green powder. He instructed me to mix the powder with cold water until it felt like my ear lobe.

 I stared for more than a minute, wondering if this was a joke. It wasn’t. Others stared back at me, waiting to watch me cry. You see, that green powder burns and there’s no way around it. I quickly learned to use cold water in the mix. Using lukewarm or hot water made me want to pull my eyeballs out. Oh and don’t breathe!  That’s when I first learned about the fake stuff that most restaurants offer.

The difference between fresh and fake wasabi is comparable to the difference between organic and non-organic foods. Fresh wasabi is more expensive, harder to find, and has a shorter shelf-life, but the flavor is far superior. It’s healthier, and it’s farmed in natural waters. It’s also like the difference between fresh and boxed pasta. Fresh pasta tastes nothing like boxed macaroni. I’m not just biased because I am a chef. I’m simply speaking the truth. Fresh wasabi will taste nothing like the fake play-dough I was forced to make that day. The taste of the real stuff is sharp, pure, and simply better.

Real wasabi is a root vegetable that grows naturally in clean mountain streams and rocky riverbeds. It is believed to be the most difficult plant to grow commercially. It is most successfully cultivated in Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. Seeds for wasabi plants are hard to get here in North America. If you can find them you pay a bundle!

It’s safe to estimate less than 7% of restaurants offer real wasabi root. If you’re able to experience it, don’t think twice. If they don’t offer fresh wasabi, chances are they have Kizami wasabi. Kizami is grated Japanese wasabi root that is already prepared. You’ll pay more for wasabi root or Kizami wasabi, but little goes a long way. More importantly, you’ll be eating a real product. That’s spending your sushi dollars wisely!

Save your local chefs the trouble of crying behind the curtain, mixing five industrial sized bags of fake wasabi at a time, and insist on the real stuff the next time you go to you favorite sushi bar. Start a new trend that benefits everyone. I’m so sold on the real thing that it’s all I use in my sushi classes.

Chef Mallory Soule

Sushi Chef

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