Japan from the inside out

Wasabi–the mouth-watering, nose-running condiment

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 23, 2009

ANYONE WHO’S EVER EATEN nigirizushi knows about wasabi—the green, horseradish-like paste spread between the fish on top and the rice on the bottom. Yet few who’ve eaten it realize all the trouble people went through to get that condiment on the sushi to begin with, and to keep it fresh once it got there.


For one thing, the wasabi is purposely placed between the fish and the rice to preserve its pungency. The paste quickly loses its distinctive flavor and aroma when exposed to the air. In fact, just about everything involved with the cultivation and preparation of wasabi takes time and trouble. Take a look at the accompanying photo, for example. It shows Murakami Takeo and his wife Torae, both in their 80s, harvesting their wasabi crop last week.

The Murakamis grow their wasabi in the shallows of the Tani River that flows behind their home in Tanabe, Wakayama. There are two types of wasabi, and the kind the Murakamis cultivate is called sawa wasabi. That variety must be grown in pure, constantly flowing water—the colder the better. The couple planted this crop two years ago in the sandy river soil, around which they’ve built a stone wall.

They have to harvest the plant by hand, pulling out the main root from the earth and removing the leaves and smaller hairy roots. They’ll put two kilograms of the roots in a specially built wooden box to ship to market, because the roots also go bad quickly. Some of their wasabi will be sold at shops in the city that purchase produce directly from the farmers.

Wasabi grows wild in Japanese stream beds and mountain river valleys. The Japanese themselves think they’ve been eating it since the Nara period, which occurred during the 8th century, but the plant is so difficult to cultivate they didn’t successfully farm it until 800 years later in what is now Shizuoka City. The story goes that some was given in feudal tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last shogunate in 1603, and the great man loved it so much he forbade its use outside his castle. It began to be used for soba and sushi during the Edo period, which ran from the early 17th century to 1868. Today, Nagano is the top wasabi producing prefecture when the crops of both the sawa variety and the soil-grown variety are combined.

The distinctive spiciness is due to allyl isothiocyanate, and inhaling the vapor from the plant has been shown to have an effect similar to smelling salts. In fact, some Japanese researchers are trying to use the wasabi odor to create a smoke alarm for the deaf, as you can see from this site, which includes a BBC report. Researchers conducted experiments by spraying canned wasabi extract into a room in which people with hearing impairments were sleeping. It woke 13 of the 14 test subjects up within two minutes—one of them in just 10 seconds.

Indeed, some think that wasabi has numerous health benefits as well. This website makes the case for its ingredients being effective in both preventing and treating cancer. They claim it is also an antioxidant, an antibiotic, an anticoagulant, and an anti-inflammatory agent. Even more, it is said to promote bone calcification.

There’s only one problem: They don’t tell us how much of it we have to eat to reap those benefits, and how much havoc it will wreak on our mucous membranes until that amount is consumed!

3 Responses to “Wasabi–the mouth-watering, nose-running condiment”

  1. camphortree said

    Decades ago, when my husband first ate sushi, it was at a San Francisco Airport hotel restaurant (Holiday Inn). He was trying to please the company CEOs he had flown them in. He popped a large chunk of wasabi paste, believing that it was guacamole dip. He quickly drank a whole glass of water and smiled with tears. One of the CEOs said, “Very good.”

  2. Bender said

    That variety must be grown in pure, constantly flowing water—the colder the better.

    If the water freezes, no wasabi. In the north, folks grow yama-wasabi instead, which I believe is horse radish.

  3. […] All you ever wanted to know about Japanese wasabi. […]

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