Stalking the Elusive Wasabi

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Stalking the Elusive Wasabi


Wasabi Bloody Caesar

Wasabi Sauce for Beef or Fish

Wasabi Mayonnaise

Wasabi Oyster Po’Boy Sandwiches

Quick Avocado, Shrimp and Wasabi Salad

Wasabi Ceviche

by Larry W. Greenly

Scenario One: You’re in a classy Japanese restaurant eating sushi. You dip each sushi in soy sauce. You lay a slice of ginger on top. Then you plop on some green wasabi paste. You take a bite and the mother of all fires incinerates your sinuses. Whooooee! The wasabi takes away your breath and clears out your sinuses. You can’t even speak for a moment. But wasabi’s ethereal fire is astonishingly short-lived, unlike the effect of capsaicin in chile peppers.

Scenario Two: You like the restaurant’s wasabi so much you drop by an Asian market on the way home and buy a bag of pale green wasabi powder for a couple of bucks. Later, you mix the powder with water and wait a few minutes for the flavor to develop. The water brightens the powder to a bright green—just like at the restaurant. You taste it—it tastes just like what you had at the restaurant. Whooooee! It takes your breath away—just like at the restaurant.

Okay, class. Quiz time. Which of the above scenarios features genuine wasabi? Sorry, you’ve been had. Believe it or not, the answer is neither.

If “wasabi” appears as a powder or a paste, you can pretty much bet it’s actually what the Japanese refer to as seiyo or “Western wasabi,” a mixture of ordinary horseradish, Chinese mustard, a little cornstarch, and some green food coloring. The phony wasabi is tasty in its own right, but it’s only a pale imitation of the real thing.

On the other hand, if a nubby, little green carrot appears at your table, with a fine-toothed grater, then you can rest assured you have the real thing. Both you—and, sorry to say—your wallet will notice the difference, but wasabi aficionados say it’s well worth the extra cost. They say the taste of genuine wasabi is like a warm explosion that quickly fades away to a slightly sweet afternote.

Assuming you can find the real thing, expect to pay between $70 and $100 per pound. At seven to ten roots per pound, you can see how one little root can cost at least eight to ten dollars. Even in Japan, only an estimated five percent of sushi shops can afford to use fresh wasabi.

Practice Safe Food: Use Condiments

Wasabi’s beneficial properties have long been recognized in Japan, where it was recorded in a medical encyclopedia as early as the 10th century. Wasabi has been used for many years as a condiment with noodles, sushi, and particularly sashimi, where its antibiotic properties may help prevent food poisoning from the raw fish.

Modern researchers are finding new uses for wasabi and the chemicals it contains. For example, wasabi’s heat comes from isothiocyanates, powerful antioxidants that may be useful as antibacterial agents, and for treating or preventing blood clotting and asthma, as well as stomach, breast, and prostate cancer. Wasabi has even been found to prevent tooth decay. (One can only imagine wasabi toothpaste!)

Industry has also discovered that wasabi makes excellent non-fouling marine paint and even a wood preservative that replaces poisonous arsenates. But until wasabi’s price drops dramatically, don’t hold your breath for these or similar innovations.

How to Handle the Real Stuff

If you’re lucky enough to locate some genuine wasabi, select only fresh, unshriveled roots. Wrap them in damp paper towels and store in the refrigerator up to 30 days. Rinse with cold water once a week and trim away any dark edges before using.

Trimmed Wasabi Rhizome



Trimmed Wasabi Rhizome

Photo: Pacific Coast Wasabi



Wasabi’s unique flavor is best enjoyed if it’s grated on a very fine grater. Ceramic or stainless steel graters work well, but wasabi lovers believe the best flavor, texture and consistency result from using a traditional sharkskin grater called an oroshi.

When wasabi is grated, it releases volatile compounds that gradually dissipate with exposure to air. Grating wasabi is an exacting art. The root must even be held at a 90-degree angle to the grater, which allows the volatile compounds to develop with minimal exposure to air. Only enough should be grated that can be consumed within 15 to 20 minutes—before the flavor disappears.

How to Grate Wasabi

Grating Wasabi



Grating Wasabi

Photo: Pacific Coast Wasabi


  1. Rinse the wasabi under cold, running water.

  2. Working toward yourself, scrape off any bumps using the back of a knife.

  3. Gently scrub with a stiff brush to dislodge any dirt.

  4. Cut the root just below the leaf stem.

  5. Hold the root at a 90-degree angle to the grater and grate, using a circular motion.

  6. Gather into a ball and wait a minute for it to develop its heat and flavor.

  7. Enjoy within 15 to 20 minutes.

Why Wasabi Is So Expensive and Hard to Find

Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) is a perennial plant, a member of the mustard family, and a cousin to cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. All parts of the plant can be used, including the leaves, which are sometimes pickled or used to flavor other foods. But it’s the below-ground stem—the rhizome—that’s the most sought-after part. The rhizome (usually called a “root”) is what’s grated into a pasty condiment for raw fish, sushi, or noodles.

Native to Japan, wasabi grows naturally in or near cold, shaded mountain streams with just the right mineral balance. Wasabi has been cultivated in Japan since the 10th century, but is notoriously difficult to grow. Outdoor cultivated wasabi plants require a constant supply of cool, running water, a loose gravel bed, and shade from trees or cloth to protect their leaves from sunburn.

A Newly Planted Wasabi Bed



A Newly Planted Wasabi Bed

Photo: Frogfarm Wasabi


In Japan, growers have learned to construct wasabi beds up to three feet deep using graduated sizes of gravel placed alongside cold streams and precisely arranged so water runs through them in a uniform pattern. The last beds in Japan, however, were reportedly built more than 200 years ago.

Wasabi is grown from transplants, taking about eighteen months to mature to its marketable size: one and a half inches in diameter and six inches long. Field wasabi may take as much as three years or more to mature.

A Mature Wasabi Bed Under Netting



A Mature Wasabi Bed Under Netting

Photo: Frogfarm Wasabi


Plants grown in mountain streams are known as sawa (semi-aquatic) wasabi; those grown in fields are known as oka (field) wasabi. Sawa wasabi is considered superior in both taste and appearance and usually commands higher prices than the oka variety.

The Holy Grail, though, has always been to grow wasabi in a greenhouse setting. Over the years, many researchers have attempted to grow wasabi hydroponically—with a marked lack of success—and some were convinced that wasabi couldn’t be grown by any methods except those traditionally used in Japan. Fortunately, some researchers were too stubborn to give up and finally succeeded in coaxing wasabi to not only grow outside Japan, but in greenhouses under controlled conditions.

Freshly Harvested Wasabi



Freshly Harvested Wasabi

Photo: Frogfarm Wasabi



The Pacific Northwest, with its cool, damp climate, proved to be an ideal place to grow wasabi, but the main problem even there was to fool wasabi into thinking it was growing in Japan. Eventually some industrious wasabi pioneers worked out all the kinks with correct growing media, temperatures, nutrients, and water flow. Nowadays, several firms outside Japan sell fresh wasabi to consumers.

Wasabi Sources

  • Pacific Farms, located in Oregon, was one of the pioneers in greenhouse cultivation of wasabi. The firm started in 1991 by importing wasabi plants from Japan. After five years of research and development (meanwhile experiencing an incredible amount of industrial espionage concerning their growing methods) they harvested their first test crop, growing plants for their specially-designed recirculating hydroponics system. By 1997, they began year-round, weekly harvesting of fresh wasabi for sale to wholesale companies and high-end restaurants.

  • By 2000 Pacific Farms scaled back their commercial production (which they hope to restart in the near future), but they still grow plants for customers who want to grow wasabi as a hobby (six live plants for $22.95 plus shipping). Currently, they also import frozen wasabi roots, which they make into fresh wasabi paste and sell in 1.5 oz tubes (six tubes for $24.95 plus shipping). Phone 1-800-927-2248 x313 or

  • Their Real Wasabi Paste in tubes is supposedly very similar in taste and heat to freshly-grated wasabi, including a limited life-span. It must be shipped frozen via FedEx. The tubes can be stored for a year if frozen, or 60 days refrigerated. Once opened, the paste must be used within 30 days.

  • Pacific Coast Wasabi, Ltd., located in Vancouver, British Columbia, is another firm that sells fresh wasabi. The company grows its wasabi in fourteen acres of greenhouses, using a proprietary hydroponic system and medium that tricks the plants into thinking they’re growing in a stream.

  • Pacific Coast circumvented the difficulty of obtaining wasabi seeds—they cost a dollar apiece from the Japanese government—by developing their own technique of producing seeds. But it’s a painfully slow process, taking two years for a plant to produce seeds.

  • The firm sells its wasabi to up-scale Japanese, Asian, and North American markets and to pharmaceutical and industrial researchers for biochemical studies. Demand for wasabi always far exceeds supply, but, eventually, the firm expects to reveal their growing process to help provide a steady supply of fresh wasabi worldwide. They may be reached at (604) 682-4576 or

  • Halfway around the world, New Zealand Wasabi Ltd., has developed a patented growing system for producing high-quality wasabi anywhere in the world. In 1991, they started growing wasabi on the North Island of New Zealand. After a few disastrous growing trials, they developed a new system that consistently yields high-quality plants in a fifteen month period, weighing as much as two pounds, and with less than a two percent mortality rate.

  • To date, New Zealand Wasabi has achieved yields of 20,000 pounds per acre, but they believe further development will double that. Their growing system is available as a franchise opportunity for wannabe wasabi growers. For further information, see their website at

  • If you prefer something more homespun, Frogfarm Wasabi, located in Seattle, makes growing wasabi sound like no big deal. They say they grow their wasabi outdoors in compost under shade cloth, protect the plants from slugs and snails, and spray the plants once or twice a day to maintain soil moisture and humidity. Frogfarm sells bare root plants to hobby growers and others, and includes detailed growing instructions on how to grow 6-inch roots in 18 to 24 months. Cost is $7.50 per plant plus $5 shipping for every three plants. Contact them at (206) 361-1981 or

Now that your appetite is whetted by the wonders of wasabi, here are a few fusion recipes sure to bring accolades from your admiring family and friends. If you don’t have real wasabi, use the powdered stuff. The taste will be close enough.

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Wasabi Bloody CaesarWasabi Bloody Caesar

In 1969, our Canadian neighbors in Calgary invented the Caesar Cocktail to celebrate a new restaurant. The drink now consistently ranks in the top ten favorites. With the addition of wasabi, this recipe takes the Bloody Caesar to where no drink has gone before.

  • 1 teaspoon wasabi paste

  • 1.5 ounces vodka

  • Lime wedge

  • Celery salt to taste

  • Salt to taste

  • Ice

  • 6 ounces Mott’s Clamato Juice

  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

  • Dash of hot sauce of choice

  • Dash Worcestershire sauce

  • Celery stalk

Place the wasabi in small bowl. Pour in vodka and stir until blended. Rub a highball glass rim with the lime wedge, celery salt, and salt. Add ice. Pour the vodka mixture into the glass. Add the Clamato, pepper, hot sauce, and Worcestershire. Squeeze the lime wedge into the glass. Stir and garnish with celery stalk.

Yield: 1 drink

Heat Scale: Medium

Wasabi Sauce for Beef or FishWasabi Sauce for Beef or Fish

A remake of a classic early English horseradish sauce, this pungent condiment is perfect for rare roast beef or steak, smoked salmon, and any fried or baked fish dish. Make it just before you are ready to serve the meal.

  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

  • ½ teaspoon lemon juice

  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold, heavy cream

  • 2 tablespoons wasabi paste

In a small bowl, combine the mustard, sugar, salt, a sprinkling of black pepper, vinegar, and lemon juice to make a smooth paste.

Whip the cream in a another, cold bowl until peaks form. Add the whipped cream and wasabi to the mustard paste, stirring the mixture to blend it. Serve immediately.

Yield: 3/4 cup

Heat Scale: Medium

Wasabi MayonnaiseWasabi Mayonnaise

Wasabi mayo is delicious on grilled salmon, salmon cakes or deep-fried oysters (and most any other seafood). Try perking up anything that uses mayonnaise, such as deviled eggs, tuna salad sandwiches, or the po’boy sandwiches below. This mayo recipe eliminates today’s problems with raw eggs and possible salmonella because the egg base is heated before emulsifying it into mayonnaise. Serve this over grilled tuna or other fish.

  • 2 large egg yolks

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons water

  • ½ teaspoon sugar

  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup vegetable oil

  • 1 tablespoons prepared wasabi paste

Have a bowl of cold water handy. Place the egg yolks, lemon juice, water, and sugar in a small pan and heat over very low heat, while stirring constantly. If the mixture starts to thicken, immediately remove it from the heat, but continue stirring. Dip the bottom of the pan into the cold water to stop the mixture from cooking.

Scrape the mixture into a blender and let it cool for at least five minutes. Add the dry mustard and salt. Cover the blender and turn it on. With the blender running, slowly drizzle the oil in a very thin stream, allowing the blender to emulsify the sauce. Stop the blender. Add the wasabi. Pulse or blend the mayonnaise just long enough to thoroughly incorporate the wasabi. Refrigerated, this mayonnaise should keep at least a week.

Yield: 1½ cups

Heat Scale: Medium but dissipates quickly


Wasabi Oyster Po’Boy SandwichesWasabi Oyster Po’Boy Sandwiches

Now that you’ve made the wasabi mayonnaise, why not make some wasabi po’boy sandwiches that’ll take your breath away? The following recipe makes four servings.

Wasabi Tartar Sauce:

  • 1 cup wasabi mayonnaise

  • 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish

  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot or onion

  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

  • 1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

  • 1/4 teaspoon Louisiana-style hot sauce

Sandwich Filling:

  • Vegetable oil

  • 2 loaves French bread

  • Butter or margarine

  • Cornmeal, seasoned with black pepper and cayenne

  • 24 shucked oysters, drained

  • Sliced tomatoes

  • Shredded lettuce

Heat oil to 375 degrees F. (190 degrees C.) in a deep fryer or heavy skillet.

Meanwhile, prepare the wasabi tartar sauce by stirring all the ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

Slice the loaves of bread into half horizontally and vertically. Spread inside surfaces of bread with butter. Place the bread on a baking sheet, cut sides up. Heat the bread under broiler for 2 or 3 minutes, or until lightly browned; set aside.

Place cornmeal mixture in a plastic bag. Drop in six oysters at a time and shake until well coated with cornmeal, knocking off excess. Fry the oysters in batches of six or less, turning occasionally, until they’re just cooked through and are golden brown, about 1½ minutes. Drain on paper towels.

Spread each piece of bread with 2 tablespoons of wasabi tartar sauce. Arrange the oysters, tomatoes, and lettuce on the bottom slices of bread. Top with the remaining bread and gently press together. Enjoy.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild


Quick Avocado, Shrimp and Wasabi SaladQuick Avocado, Shrimp and Wasabi Salad

Quick Avocado, Shrimp, and Wasabi Salad



Quick Avocado, Shrimp, and Wasabi Salad

Photo: Norman Johnson



This recipe is quick for several reasons: it takes only minutes to prepare, and if not prepared and served quickly, the avocado will turn brown and the pungency of the wasabi will dissipate.

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • ½ pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, heads and tails removed

  • 2 avocados, skinned, stones removed, and chopped

  • 1 tablespoon wasabi paste, mixed in 1 tablespoon water

  • 1 small bunch spinach or romaine, torn in pieces and divided onto 4 plates

Heat the oil in a wok until hot and add the garlic; stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Remove and drain. Combine the shrimp, avocado, and wasabi paste in a bowl and mix well. Serve the mixture over the spinach or romaine.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Wasabi CevicheWasabi Ceviche

There’s nothing like a little wasabi to perk up ceviche. Just make sure you add it at the last minute, right before serving. You can eat the ceviche from tall glasses, or pile it on a salad of spinach, green onions, and tomatoes, topped with wasabi mayonnaise. A crusty slice of toasted garlic bread goes well with this.

  • 1 pound white fish of choice, such as snapper, cut into ½-inch cubes

  • 1 cup lime juice

  • ½ cup water

  • 1 teaspoon lime zest

  • 2 teaspoons habanero hot sauce

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup tomato juice

  • 1 small onion, minced

  • 1 tablespoon minced cilantro

  • 1 tablespoon wasabi paste

Combine the fish, lime juice, water, hot sauce in a non-reactive bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove from the refrigerator, stir in the remaining ingredients, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium-hot


(Editor’s Note: For a nice selection of wasabi recipes, log on to: )


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