Eat too much of it, and the flaming sensation invades your mouth and nose. The much-beloved wasabi is an essential when it comes to eating Japanese food. However, chances, are, you have never had real wasabi.
Instead, what we eat at most Japanese restaurants is simply a mixture of horseradish and mustard, coloured green.
That’s because real wasabi is really, really hard to grow and therefore much more expensive than the horseradish version that we eat.
The process is painstaking. The Wasabia Japonica plant is sometimes dubbed ‘the hardest plant to grow’. According to Yujiro Hashimoto, production chief at Daio Wasabi Farm in Hokata, Japan, “too much sunlight is not good, nor is not enough sunlight, you need just the right amount.”
However, the most crucial factor is growing it in spring water, at the right temperature of around 13 to 18 degrees Celsius. One thing wrong, and your entire harvest is done for the season- you won’t be able to grow wasabi for another year and a half. So it’s a pretty high-stakes plant to cultivate.
Oh yeah, and it can only be farmed by hand- not mechanised like other crops such as rice.
The labour-intensive nature of farming wasabi, along with high demand, makes the crop an expensive one.
However, the taste of the horseradish substitute and real wasabi isn’t quite the same. Real wasabi has a complex taste, a ‘spiciness followed by sweetness’. According to Huffington Post, it also loses its strong flavour after 15 minutes or so, and hence must be served fresh and immediately.
How to know if you’re getting the real deal? If you’re in Japan and the chef uses shark skin to grate the wasabi plant’s stem, leaving you with that delightful green mush, then you’re tasting real wasabi. Until then, most of us will just happily keep eating our low-SES version.