If you live in the West and eat sushi, there is a really, really good chance that you have never eaten real wasabi. There’s even a good chance that you’ve never seen real wasabi in person. Most wasabi is fake in America–by most we mean 99%. Even in Japan almost 95% is imitation–just in case you thought being in Japan would automatically make it real. We’ve referenced it on the blog before, but let’s do a deeper dive. Why is wasabi fake?
What Have You Been Eating?
So that green stuff that comes on the side of your sushi. That paste is just horseradish with some mustard and citric acid. Which makes sense, since horseradish is in the same family as wasabi. There’s also some yellow and blue dye to turn it green–and on the off chance that paste has wasabi in it, it’s a negligibly small amount just to tick off the box that says “wasabi is in this.” You know when you get some kind of fruit candy that says “contains real fruit” but most of the taste comes from “artificial flavors” anyway. It’s all shenanigans.
This paste comes in the form of powder that gets mixed with water and served with your food. Imitation wasabi emulates the sinus-clearing properties of the real deal, but other that wasabi is different from horseradish. Both horseradish and wasabi release allyl isothiocyanate, which gives them their spicy quality. Horseradish has quite a bit more of it though–which actually makes it more spicy than its authentic form.
There are also a lot of other compounds wasabi has that the European horseradish doesn’t. Without pulling out more long science-names, horseradish and wasabi share compounds that give them their flavors. Some of the minor compounds in horseradish are more prominent in wasabi while some of the more dominant compounds in horseradish are downplayed. Specifically the one that gives fake wasabi paste its sometimes overpowering radish flavor.
What’s Real, Then?
Well the part that would come in your sushi is the stem of the Wasabia Japonica plant. It used to grow naturally in river beds, and in Japan Wasabia Japonica is primarily grown in the Shizuoka Prefecture and Azumino Plains.
Given that 99% of wasabi is imitation, and we only listed like two places where it’s primarily cultivated in Japan, you’ve probably figured out that wasabi isn’t the easiest to grow. Of course other countries have tried to get into cultivating wasabi commercially–but that doesn’t make it easier to grow. Wasabi seeds are expensive and sometimes they just don’t germinate because screw you, wasabi hates you. If anything is slightly off about its environment, the plant will just die, because it’s super picky. Because of this, it’s often considered one of the most difficult plants to grow commercially, and that’s before you consider all the other hurdles that come with growing plants at scale. Hurdles that become even more difficult to surmount when you realize it takes a few years for wasabi to reach maturity.
All that is to say wasabi is super expensive. If you thought almost a dollar per seed was a lot, wait until you open a restaurant and try to get your hands on it. As of 2014 you’d be staring down the barrel of $160 per kilogram of wasabi–which is over $70 per pound. It’s getting even more expensive as time goes on too.
Plus once you grate wasabi you have to eat it almost immediately. Wasabi paste will hold its flavor for a while, but real wasabi contains many more volatile compounds than its imitation counterpart. But it’s not like you were leaving your sushi out to sit anyway. It’s also not like you were eating real wasabi either, but that was assumed.
Look at sushi turned into other things here.