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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogWhat is Wasabi: An Awesome Japanese Spice!

What is Wasabi: An Awesome Japanese Spice!

Mihika GandhiMihika Gandhi
Published Time
Posted on 
February 21, 2024
A plate of wasabi both grated and whole.

When it comes to Japanese food, one ingredient pops out – that green, spicy goodness known as wasabi. It’s different from your average condiment! Why is it such a big deal in Japanese food? Well, there’s more to it than just its strong taste.

It has a long and exciting history, with cultural significance and culinary expertise woven into its story. Join us as we dig deeper into this green mystery, uncovering its different types and why it’s still an essential flavor in the food world.

When did people first start using wasabi?

Back in the old days, people used to call it “Yamaaoi,” which means “mountain vegetables” because it grows in the mountains. Another theory suggests that its heart-shaped leaves were the reason for naming it “Sawa-aoi,” which later turned into “wasahi” and finally became known as “wasabi,” which we all know today.

A scoop of wasabi on a black plate.
Wasabi is usually green, but it can also be white as well. Image via Shutterstock

It has thrived in Japan’s mountain streams since the Nara period, 710-793 AD. The story took a turn in 786 AD when a Buddhist monk named Kohbou-Daishi played a matchmaker by transplanting wild wasabi from Mount Koya to the Chuzen-ji Temple area in Mie Prefecture.

Back in 1185, during the historical adventure in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Heike warriors who were running away came up with an exciting idea to make their food more delicious. They used its roots to garnish sashimi and made pickled delicacies from its stems and leaves. So, let’s enjoy this flavorful ride, shall we?

Are there different kinds of wasabi?

Authentic

Authentic wasabi is a prized delicacy with a unique character. It is grown under conditions requiring cool temperatures, shade, and well-aerated, flowing water. The fiery sensation of allyl isothiocyanate adds a spicy kick to its taste, accompanied by hints of sweetness and depth. Cultivating this culinary treasure is no easy feat, but the result is worth it.

Someone dipping wasabi into soy sauce.
You can enjoy wasabi in both organic and imitation forms! Image via Shutterstock

Imitation 

On the other hand, there are some wasabi products out there that you should be aware of. They are primarily used in commercial products and restaurants because they are easier and cheaper to produce. Instead of using the real stuff, they use ingredients like horseradish and mustard to fake the taste. These imitations can be spicy, but the authentic stuff has a deeper and more complex taste. It’s up to you to decide which one you want to go for.

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Which Japanese dishes use wasabi?

Sushi

Sea bream sushi with wasabi on top.
Wasabi is a common ingredient in sushi. Image via Shutterstock

Sushi is a super popular Japanese dish that people love worldwide. You know what makes it so great? The perfect balance of flavors and textures. You usually get some of it with your sushi, and mixing it with soy sauce takes things to the next level. Some sushi chefs even put a bit between the rice and the fish in nigiri sushi. This gives it a little kick that goes great with the raw fish. Yum!

Soba Noodles

A bowl of soba noodles with wasabi on the side.
Wasabi gives soba a little kick! Image via Shutterstock

Did you know that soba is a famous Japanese noodle made from buckwheat? They’re usually served either cold with a dipping sauce called zaru soba or hot in a delicious broth. People often mix some of it into the soba dishes to add flavor. It gives a tangy and spicy kick that perfectly balances out the richness of the broth.

Sandwiches

Convenience stores like 7-11 have started selling roast beet wasabi sandwiches. It’s a unique blend of Japanese and Western cuisine, where the spiciness adds a kick to the earthy sweetness of roasted beets. Who would’ve thought this addition would be so delicious?

Why should I try wasabi?

It is way more than just some sauce you put on your sushi. It’s got this crazy, incredible taste that takes any dish to the next level. That spicy kick you get from it, thanks to allyl isothiocyanate, is like a flavor explosion in your mouth.

For all those who love to eat healthy, here’s an extra reason to add this magical ingredient to your diet. As it is not only packed with flavor but also has potential health benefits.

A bunch of whole wasabi in a farm.
Have you ever had wasabi before? Image via Shutterstock

Studies suggest its antimicrobial properties can help digestion, promote gut health, and support immune function. While we still need more research to confirm these benefits, it has been used for centuries in Japanese culture, which hints at its holistic properties.

Whether you’re a fan of spicy flavors or curious about the potential health benefits, you should try this one. Have you ever tried anything with wasabi? In the comment section below, let us know your experience, favorite dish, or thoughts.

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