Fake Wasabi? Why Most of the World’s Wasabi is not Real
In a small village in the Japanese region of Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, small-scale wasabi farmers are working hard to preserve a tradition that has been around for 1,500 years. Wasabia japonica, the plant species used to produce wasabi paste, is the world’s most difficult crop to grow. The wasabi crop is semi-aquatic and demands plenty of cool water to survive. It is highly sensitive. It also grows in rocky streams, making it a problematic crop to cultivate in soil. It is propagated by root division, which means you have to wait until roots are mature enough before you can cut it and replant it to make more crops. Once planted, it takes six months before you can determine whether the saplings you planted are viable. After that, you have to wait several years before you can harvest the crop.
The Real Wasabi: Wasabia japonica stems
Consequently, W. japonica is also one of the most expensive crops in the world. In 2014, a kilogram of the crop cost $160 (roughly P6,400 based on the exchange rate at the time). Many people tried to cash in on this crop by planting wasabi in their own countries, to their dismay. The crop proved it can only grew in very specific climates and geographic conditions, such as those in Izu and Shizuoka regions in Japan.
Wasabi crop growing on Japan's Izu Region
Izu is a sloping region in Japan’s eastern seaboard and is one of the few places in Japan suitable for cultivating the crop. The Izu and Shizuoka regions were formed by tectonic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, and are regularly battered by rain. Natural springs provide constant irrigation to vegetation and crops in the regions. The geography, latitude, and location of Izu and Shizuoka create a unique climate perfectly suited for growing wasabi.
Aside from the notoriously difficult requirements for W. japonica to survive, its flavor is also fleeting. Once grated, you only have 15 minutes to experience its true flavor. Because of this and the difficulty in cultivating the crop, the Japanese always treat wasabi with high regard, considering the years of sacrifice it takes just to produce one plant.
Mazuma: The Holy Grail of Wasabi
The Japanese cultivate many species of wasabi, but the Mazuma variety, which is mainly produced in Izu, is considered as the best wasabi in the world. There are only about 300 wasabi farmers in Izu, and of that number, only 30 are able to cultivate Mazuma exclusively. If not for Japanese ingenuity and diligence in preserving this crop, the world would have never known a very important gastronomic heritage.
Not only is Mazuma so rare, its flavor is also distinctly delicate. Its flavor is very far from what we’ve come to know as “wasabi”: horseradish and mustard paste with green food color.
Taking horseradish and calling it wasabi is a painful affront to the time and sacrifice it takes to grow wasabi.
What True Wasabi Tastes Like
True wasabi does not overpower the senses. Real wasabi has three distinct characteristics. First, you experience the real taste of wasabi beginning with its fragrance. Unlike horseradish, freshly grated wasabi has hints of herbal scents, which do not offend the nasal gland. Second, when you taste real wasabi, you experience a kind of sweetness in the palate, something the horseradish-mustard paste cannot replicate. Third, a quick and distinct spiciness awakens the senses just enough to complement the taste of sushi.
In contrast to real wasabi, the horseradish and mustard paste that most people are familiar with does not have an appealing or sweet fragrance. It also has a powerful pungent character that lacks the subtlety of real wasabi.
If you have to use the radish-based paste as a wasabi alternative, it is strongly advised that you use it very minimally so as not to overpower the flavors of the sushi.
Wasabi Etiquette: How to Eat Wasabi
If you are one of the few who are fortunate enough to experience the taste of real wasabi, treat it with care. Since the flavor of grated wasabi lasts for only 15 minutes, some Japanese keep a fresh piece of wasabi with them for grating later when they eat.
Use fresh wasabi sparingly. Do not attempt to make a “wasabi soup”: wasabi paste dissolved in soy sauce with calamansi. Many people use this as a dip for their sushi. This just kills the flavor of the wasabi. Instead of creating a wasabi soup dip, just take tiny amount of the freshly grated wasabi and dab it on your sushi.
Pick it up with your chopsticks and then partly dip it—not soak it—in soy sauce. Wasabi and soy sauce are supposed to complement the flavor of the sushi, not mask it or overpower it. If you are in a Japanese restaurant, your plates of sushi are typically served with minimal amount of wasabi. Do not ask for more wasabi if sushi chefs already spread your sushi with wasabi.