Wasabi : The Crop of Gold

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We all know a dash of Wasabi is essential to your favorites sushi and sashimi, but did you know this bits of green toothpaste like blob is actually the stern of the plant? and it is the most expensive plant grown on Japanese soils?

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The plant grows naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan. Because it grows mostly submerged, it is a common misconception to refer to the part used for wasabi as a root or sometimes even a rhizome. Wasabi is difficult to cultivate, and that makes it quite expensive for restaurant outside Japan. Wasabi is generally sold as a stem, which must be very finely grated before use.

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Many high end restaurants in Japan or Asian countries only serve and prepare their wasabi after the customer orders, and is made using a grater to grate the stem. But once the paste has been prepared, they will lose their flavor after 15 minutes if you leave them uncovered. When eaten with sushi, chefs place the wasabi in between the fish and the rice in order to preserves its flavor. While dining in a Japanese restaurant in Canada, the wasabi you are served with is not always what it seems. Due to a high demand and limited supply (and when it became very common food in the Western countries), what is often served with your sushi is a mix of American horseradish, mustard and coloring, which the Japanese call seiyō wasabi (“western wasabi”). This is because real wasabi are hard to find or very expensive outside Japan. Wasabi is also sometimes powdered and reconstituted with water, and while this is sometimes served as well, the volatile compounds that make wasabi so unique are lost when the rhizome is powdered.

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Many people mis-understands the reason why wasabi is served with sushi, thinking it is used to kill micro bacteria in the raw fishes and sushi. When actually they don’t. Wasabi are used to help soften the smell of the fish, and draw out more of the fish’s natural flavor with a hint of wasabi’s distinct flavor.

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Many of people and farmers in the US and Canada have tried and failed to grow Wasabi. The reason is simple: wasabi is deemed by most experts to be the most difficult plant in the world to grow commercially, because wasabi is grown in a manner unlike most other crops, It’s a water loving plant, but it does not grow completely submerged in water like a water lily. They need water to flow over the crop, with the right water temperature, air and humidity is also a factor, and don’t forget the pristine water with just the right balance of minerals.

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A former UBC professor had tried to grow these plants in Vancouver and did succeed in a small batch but ran into other troubles. You can check his story out here.

So if you happens to find a restaurant that are able to serve real Wasabi, be sure to enjoy it knowing the complexity of growing that little green blob.

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