Sushi lovers, let’s get real about wasabi. If you’ve ever wondered whether that green paste on your plate is authentic, freshly grated wasabi root – you’re not alone!
The truth is, most sushi joints in the U.S. use an imitation wasabi. Real wasabi is pricey and hard to import. So that sinus-clearing wasabi experience usually comes from a mix of horseradish, mustard, and colorings instead. Still, high-end sushi restaurants may splurge on the real deal for true wasabi devotees.
In this article, we’ll uncover everything about genuine wasabi – from how it grows to why it’s scarce. You’ll learn how to spot the difference and where to find the fresh stuff. So grab your soy sauce and get ready to separate wasabi fact from fiction!
What Exactly is Real Wasabi?
Genuine wasabi comes from the grated rhizome or stem of Wasabia japonica, a leafy green plant in the brassica family native to Japan. It’s nicknamed “Japanese horseradish,” but true wasabi has its own distinct spicy kick and enticing aroma.
When grated fresh, the wasabi root releases a complex flavor with notes of horseradish, mustard, and garlic. Its spiciness clears the nasal passages – a palate cleanser paired with sushi.
Why is Real Wasabi Hard to Find?
If you’ve only had sushi in the U.S., chances are you haven’t tasted true wasabi. Here’s why the real stuff is a rarity:
Picky Growing Conditions
Real wasabi thrives only in cold, shady climates with flowing water. It’s mostly grown in Japan, with small farms in Oregon and British Columbia. Difficult to cultivate elsewhere.
Expensive to Import
Because authentic wasabi is scarce, importing the fresh roots and stems from Japan is pricey. It’s not economically feasible for most sushi restaurants.
Short Shelf Life
The compounds giving wasabi its pungent flavor are delicate. Once grated, real wasabi loses its kick after just 15 minutes. Hard for restaurants to keep up with demand.
Not Familiar Taste
Many sushi-eaters grew up with the imitation wasabi flavor. Authentic wasabi can taste odd or mild in comparison.
For these reasons, virtually all sushi restaurants in the U.S., even high-end ones, opt for a convenient wasabi alternative to use in their rolls.
What is the Common Wasabi Substitute?
Any wasabi you encounter at your average sushi joint is likely a paste made from:
- Horseradish – For nasal-clearing heat
- Dried mustard – For tangy bite
- Food coloring – For that iconic green color
- Texturizers – To form a thick paste
This imitation wasabi may be labeled “wasabi paste” or simply “wasabi.” While the flavor differs from true wasabi, most sushi lovers are used to and enjoy the horseradish version.
Some high-end restaurants will mix a bit of real wasabi powder into their imitation paste for an authentic hint. But pure, grated wasabi root is hard to come by.
How to Spot Real vs. Fake Wasabi
To identify true wasabi when dining out:
Color – Real wasabi is pale green, not bright green
Texture – It should have a coarse, grated texture, not smooth
Taste – Authentic wasabi is mildly sweet with a complex flavor
Smell – Its aroma is crisp, herbaceous, and distinctive
Prep Method – Must be grated fresh from the whole root just before serving
Price – Real wasabi is extremely expensive, so sushi prices may reflect that
Menu Descriptions – Look for wording specifying “freshly grated” or “real wasabi.”
Getting the actual stuff is a rare treat at U.S. sushi joints. But discerning the difference helps you appreciate true wasabi on the occasions you’re lucky enough to score it!
Where Can You Find Real Wasabi with Sushi?
While difficult, it’s not impossible to find true wasabi served alongside premium sushi in the United States. Here are a few places grinding up the fresh stuff:
O Ya – Boston, MA
Shuko – New York, NY
Sushi Ginza Onodera – Los Angeles, CA
Sushi Nozawa – Studio City, CA
Traditional Edomae-Style Sushi
Sushi Masataka – New York, NY
Sushi Yoshitake – Tokyo, Japan (U.S. locations periodically)
Sukiyabashi Jiro – Tokyo, Japan
Pacific Northwest Locations
Ariake – Seattle, WA
Bamboo Sushi – Portland, OR
Shigezo – Seattle, WA
Subaru’s Wasabi Farm – Oregon (farm tours available)
These top-quality sushi experiences command premium prices, sometimes $300+ per person. But wasabi aficionados say the real deal is worth it!
How is Real Wasabi Served with Sushi?
Authentic wasabi needs to be extremely fresh to offer that complex flavor and heat. So traditionally, the wasabi root is grated right before serving.
At high-end sushi bars, you may see the chef grating wasabi just minutes before garnishing your fish. The precious grated bits are then lightly brushed or dolloped onto each piece.
The wasabi complements the fish, rather than covering up flavors like sauce-heavy rolls do. Eating wasabi this fresh is an unmatched nasal experience!
What Does Real Wasabi Taste Like?
Compared to imitation wasabi, genuine wasabi has a more nuanced, layered flavor profile:
- Initial sweetness, quickly followed by…
- A burst of spiciness, more like horseradish than peppers
- Tangy, herbal notes like arugula or mustard greens
- Pleasant leafy green aroma
- Mild lingering heat, doesn’t overpower fish
- Imparts a fresh, springlike essence
The thrill is having wasabi’s heat hit your nose rather than your tongue. This cleanses the palate to fully savor delicate sushi flavors.
Health Benefits of Real Wasabi
Beyond its culinary appeal, genuine wasabi is good for you too! It contains compounds that may:
- Fight bacteria and inflammation
- Reduce risk of certain cancers
- Lower cholesterol
- Improve respiratory conditions
Studies are still emerging, but it seems this flavorful rhizome packs health perks. All the more reason to seek out the real stuff!
Can You Make Your Own Real Wasabi at Home?
What if you’re craving authentic wasabi’s kick but can’t find it on any sushi menu? Consider making your own at home:
Buy fresh wasabi roots/stems – Check specialty grocers or importers, likely $$$
Grate very finely – Use a fine microplane grater for desired texture
Grind just before using – For maximum flavor and heat
Store tightly wrapped – Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks
Grow your own – Possible in some climates with patience and effort
Use wasabi powder – Hydrate powder to form a paste, lacks freshness
With access to fresh wasabi, you can create your own superb sushi experience at home. But the effort involved highlights why most sushi chefs rely on faux wasabi!
Should Sushi Restaurants Use More Real Wasabi?
While wasabi fans crave the genuine article, the typical horseradish substitute makes sense for sushi restaurants due to:
- Expense of importing fresh wasabi
- Extreme perishability after grating
- Labor required to grate roots frequently
- Americanized palates preferring fake wasabi
For the average all-you-can-eat sushi joint, authentic wasabi probably isn’t viable. But some high-end, traditional sushi bars pride themselves on providing true wasabi alongside exquisite fish. It’s up to each business and their clientele.
Either way, understanding the difference helps you better appreciate those lucky times when you savor the unique flavor of real, freshly grated wasabi with your sushi!
Savor True Wasabi When You Can!
After reading this, your eyes are open to the world of real wasabi. While most sushi restaurants use a synthetic blend, you now know how to recognize authentic wasabi’s subtle flavors. Seek it out at renowned sushi bars whenever your budget allows. Let that fresh tingle in your nose enhance your sushi experience!