What would sushi or sashimi be without a dab of wasabi to add its special tang to the palate? The pure and clean pungency of wasabi goes very well with fresh fish, though it can also be used in other dishes like buckwheat noodles. Wasabi’s spiciness is different from chili pepper because it doesn’t linger on the tongue. Instead, you feel a burning heat spread from your mouth to your nose before quickly clearing away.
The wasabi rhizome is the source of that pungent spice we all know best. It takes eighteen months for to reach maturit and needs constant flowing water, shade, and a mild climate. It grows best in Izu, Nagano and Shizuoka, the place where wasabi cultivation began. Harvested roots can be bought in the market either pickled or fresh. The flavor of fresh wasabi paste prepared from these roots cannot be matched by commercially available ones. To make this paste, the roots are washed and the black bumps from its skin are removed. The thicker end is then rubbed against a metal or sharkskin oroshigane – a grater. The newly-grated, creamy wasabi is then gathered into a ball and left to sit for a few minutes to improve the flavor. Its flavor evaporates if it’s exposed in the air for too long, so sushi chefs put it in between the topping and the rice to preserve the taste. The best way to eat it is to spread a little bit of wasabi on top of the fish and dip the other side into the soy sauce, keeping their flavors separate.
Chances are the wasabi paste served at the side of that sashimi platter is not true wasabi at all. Because real wasabi is so difficult to cultivate, an imitation made up of Western horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring was created to meet the demands for it. This usually comes in a powder ready to be mixed with water to form a paste, or in a small tube around the size of a travel toothpaste. But whether pickled, fresh, or grated, wasabi’s unique taste will surely enliven the dishes on the the table.