What Is Wasabi?

Freshly grated wasabi

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If you eat sushi, chances are you're familiar with the green wasabi paste that might, depending on the restaurant, be served on the plate with the sushi, or on the table when you sit down, alongside the soy sauce—like ketchup bottles at a diner.

You might even know that wasabi is a type of horseradish, which indeed it is. And if you're a sushi enthusiast, you probably know exactly how much wasabi to mix into your soy sauce to achieve the exact level of pungency you happen to enjoy.

In other words, you probably like wasabi.

This means, hopefully, it won't faze you to learn that the condiment called wasabi you've been enjoying all these years is not actually made from the type of horseradish of the same name.

But that does not mean the condiment called wasabi you've been enjoying all these years isn't "really" wasabi. And hopefully, this doesn't mean you have to go back and retroactively unlike all the sushi you've ever eaten.

What Is Wasabi?

There is, in fact, a condiment made from actual wasabi root, and it really is green, but chances are you've never tasted it. And you probably never will, because it's rare and prohibitively expensive. Like $100 a pound expensive.

This means that sushi restaurants aren't going to serve it, even good ones—especially since most people have never tasted it, and wouldn't know the difference if they did.

Instead, the wasabi they serve is made from a different kind of horseradish, the common kind, known as western horseradish, as opposed to the $100 a pound kind, known as Japanese horseradish. The two are related, being members of the same plant family that includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and mustard.

But since Japanese horseradish is green, making wasabi from western horseradish involves the addition of some sort of green coloring—examples include spinach powder and a blue-green algae called spirulina.

Wasabi: Spice or Vegetable?

True wasabi is made by peeling the root of the wasabi plant and then grating it using a special studded ceramic grater, which causes it to form a sort of paste.

Compare this with the wasabi paste most of us enjoy—which is made from powdered horseradish root and green coloring. In some cases, you can purchase the paste ready-made, but you can also get the dry powder and reconstitute it with water to make a paste. You could also simply add the dry powder to your soy sauce and stir it in without bothering with the step that involves making it into a paste.

But what's interesting is that the fact that true wasabi is made from a fresh root means that it's a vegetable. Whereas if you take the same root (or a similar one) and dry it and grind it up into a powder, now it has become a spice. This means that normal everyday wasabi is a spice, while crazy-rare, $100 a pound wasabi is technically a vegetable. As such it will have a fresher, milder, more vegetable-like flavor.

There is a third form of wasabi, which comes in a tube, and is made from real wasabi root, dried and ground, and then reconstituted along with various stabilizers and other seasonings. While it isn't exactly cheap, about $10 for a small tube, it is a decent middle option between powdered and crazy-expensive.

Is Wasabi Really Wasabi?

Assuming you've never tasted freshly grated wasabi root, and probably never will, there should be no reason to conclude the fact that the wasabi with your sushi isn't "real." Firstly, because if it isn't wasabi, what is it? You can drive yourself crazy with word games like this. But ultimately if it's a pungent, green horseradish paste that comes with sushi, and it's called wasabi, then it's wasabi.

Anyway, it's real enough when it clears out your nasal passages.

Other Uses for Wasabi

The beautiful thing about wasabi powder is that it's cheap enough to experiment with. And because you already like the flavor of it with sushi, chances are you'll like it in other foods as well. Here are a few examples of nontraditional, yet wonderful ways to use wasabi:

  • Add it to mayo
  • Add it to hummus
  • Add it to guacamole
  • Add it to mashed potatoes
  • Add it to salad dressing
  • Add it to deviled eggs
  • Glaze or marinade for salmon/fish/seafood