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Wasabi

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(1) page(s): 15, 16, and 17


On a recent trip to Taiwan, at the Alishan Recreation Area, fresh wasabi rhizome and powdered wasabi were readly available and for sale. This amazed us because demand usually exceeds supply and fresh wasabi is hard to find. It is grown here, and vendors told us techniques have been perfected to grow semi-aquatic wasabi elsewhere in greenhouse environments. At this recreation area, it is grown in protected and unprotected streams, and in many other places. They said the same was true throughout the country. They reported that young and middle-age folk are eating more and more throughout their country.

For some fifty plus years Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese. They left their culinary mark, so it is no surprise that this green piquant rhizome, correctly and technically not a root, is found and favored and considered a delight. Botanically, called Wasabia japonica, the Chinese call it san yu cai. Now, Taiwanese restaurants use a lot of it with and without sushi, another item collected from Japanese culinary influences.

Some locals told us Wasabia japonica is the same as Extrema wasabi, but not everyone agrees. With eight variations of what some generically call 'Japanese horseradish,' they may believe it is related to western horseradish, but that is incorrect. Most common among the eight varieties are Daruma and Mazume. The latter is more piquant than its more popular cousin.

Real horseradish is a root, not a rhizome. Seem most commonly are the white or red jars of it on supermarket selves. In them, grated horseradish root is mixed with vinegar and a bit of salt. Horseradish root, when pulled from the ground, is dark tan with a reasonably smooth peel protecting its white interior. Botanically, this root is Armoracia rusticana. In the kitchen, when grated, it burns the eyes. If brought in contact with a cut, it burns that, too. The red jarred relative is the white stuff mixed with grated beets to reduce its piquancy.

Wasabi, not a root, is a perennial rhizome smaller than a full-grown horseradish root. About six inches long and an inch or so wide, this rhizome is not white when peeled; it is usually light green. Also, its exterior is not smooth. In Japan, it is most often used fresh, its second most popular use there is as is paste; and it is found in a tube. It is also available as a powder. However, this powder is more often dried ground horseradish mixed with mustard powder, a little cornstarch, and a mite of artificial food coloring. When fresh, expect to pay a pretty penny for this rhizome, close to a hundred bucks a pound.

Wasabi is adored trimmed and cut into thin sticks second to getting some freshly grated. Be advised that its pungency lasts about four hours, so do not prepare it too long in advance. As a powder, wasabi's shelf life is about half a year. If poorly stored, it will be even less. As a paste in a tube, it lasts for a year or two, depending upon how often it is opened and how long the cover is left off.

To reconstitute the powder, mix one teaspoon of water to every two teaspoons of powder then let it rest for twenty minutes; this provides full flavor development. When purchasing it this way or as a paste, keep in mind that some was probably diluted with powdered horseradish, so let the buyer beware if the price paid is too low. Good wasabi enhances cooked sauces and dips. Sashimi and sushi made with the real thing and fresh fish made with it can be fantastic.

Wasabi is a cruciferous vegetable in the Brassicaceae family. Its leaves can be consumed as can its stems. Their tastes relate to mustard greens. The rhizome is dried before it is made into a powder or grated and used for paste. The Japanese translate the name of this vegetable, particularly when raw, as 'mountain hollyhock' so when you see that nomenclature, you may become confused. However, hollyhock, no matter where it grows, is not related to wasabi.

The Japanese have been using wasabi for at least a thousand years, perhaps longer. Taiwanese have done so only for about a tenth of that time. In Japan, there are records of medicinal use beginning in the 10th century CE; pharmacological, and industrial uses came later. They respect that its constituents have the ability to kill microbes, and use it as an anti-coagulant, a fungicide, and a wood preservative. The Chinese are learning these uses and already use all parts of the plant for food and for other purposes. Wasabi matures in about eighteen months. Most commonly it is found in marshes, at the edges of streams, and in other reasonably wet land. Growing it in dryer areas is a newer notion that can be done, though with problems. This plant likes cool even temperatures, constant neutral to a mite acidic soil, lots of dissolved and available oxygen, stable water temperature, and lots of water. Wasabi has been introduced to other countries and now it is found growing in China and Taiwan. Lots can now be found near Dali in Yunnan, and elsewhere. It is also grown in Korea, Thailand, Columbia, New Zealand, Russia, Brazil, and the northwestern and southeastern parts of the United States, Its growth is almost always tended by professionals. It is no easy job to maintain it in a home garden.

Should you locate some, wash it well, then trim removing the bumpy parts before grating, and do that in a circular motion. Experts recommend sharkskin graters, others settle for a lemon zester or the newer flat metal graters popular for cheeses and spices.

Related to cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and watercress, this cruciferous vegetable used to be rare in China, but increasing demand by chefs is changing that. We did not see any fresh rhizomes outside of the above-mentioned forest region in Taiwan, nor have we seen it in Chinese supermarkets or retail markets in any country. The paste or powder, however, and readily available in many countries, China and Taiwan included.

One exception was a 2005 food exhibit at New York City’s Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center. There, vendors showed us a picture and the plant. They were from Real Wasabi LLC of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Doug Lambrecht, founding farmer invited interested parties to contact him at www.realwasabi.com His company sells chefs authentic mountain-grown wasabi harvested from South Carolina streams. He told us it is certified organic, and that he also sells it in sauces and dressings. The picture of the rhizome provided on these pages, is thanks to Doug and a Japanese company, Tokyo Kaneco, who have been selling it since 1905.

Doug's company and others tout it as 'amazing' because of its great taste, and its antibacterial and anti fungal properties. Their promotional material says it has bone reinforcement and anti-cancer effects, among other things. The studies they tout were mostly done on rodents. There are a few done on humans, but those we located did not use a double-blind technique. He and others tell us there are some in the works. This does not stop adoration for taste; nor should it while waiting for health-giving reasons to become available.

One constituent in wasabi is isothiocynate, a sulphur compound that gives it the flavor. Health stores in Japan are approved to sell this food item as a medicinal liquor. Some folks say the petiole or leaf stem growing out of the rhizome and its heart-shaped leaves are good for the heart. That thinking matches getting smarts when eating walnuts because they resemble brains.

Wasabi can be grown from seed or from small shoots. Herbalists who do so believe it should be enjoyed because some of its value is preventing serious diseases. We can not attest to the latter but do agree with the former; and do recommend using it Chinese style in sauces and dishes. The recipes below are for your pleasure. Should you be fortunate enough to find fresh specimens, wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel, and store them in your refrigerator with other vegetables. Doing so extends their freshness and can keep them for up to a month.
Wasabi-flavored Sea Cucumber
Ingredients:
1 pre-soaked medium sea cucumber
1 cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon fermented wine lees
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons of water
1/2 pound wasabi or mustard greens
1 scallion, minced
Preparation:
1. Simmer sea cucumber in six cups of water for one hour. Remove from heat and cool in the water for one hour. Remove sea cucumber, check that insides are clean, and cut into one-inch pieces.
2. Heat chicken broth, rice wine, wine lees, soy sauce, wasabi paste, salt, and sugar and simmer for five minutes.
3. Add cornstarch mixture, and set aside.
4. Steam wasabi greens or the mustard greens just until tender. Drain and set out on a serving platter.
5. Bring chicken broth mixture to the boil, add sea cucumber pieces and stir until thick, and pour over the greens. Sprinkle scallion pieces on top. Serve.
Monkfish with Wasabi Mayonnaise
Ingredients:
10 ounces monkfish
1 Tablespoon wasabi paste
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/4 cup Japanese mayonnaise or salad dresing
Preparation:
1. Cut monkfish into thin slices. Put in boiling water for two minutes, remove, drain, and put in a serving bowl.
2. Mix all ingredients and use as a dipping sauce for the monk fish. It is also good for dipping roasted meats, cooked scallops, and other cooked sea foods.
Crabcakes with Wasabi and Ginger
Ingredients:
2 scallions, minced
4 slices fresh ginger, finely grated
1 Tablespoon minced coriander stems
1 teaspoon wasabi powder
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 pound fresh crab meat coarsely chopped
3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
1 cup panko or other coarse bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
Preparation:
1. Mix scallions, ginger, and coriander pieces. Mix in wasabi powder and sesame oil, then add the crab meat and mix well. Make this well-mixed mixture into eight to ten small pancakes. Dip each side of them into the bread crumbs and let rest half an hour.
2. Make a dipping sauce by mixing soy sauce and wasabi paste and put into a small bowl. Set aside.
3. Heat oil and fry the pancakes for about three minutes per side, until golden and crisp. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce.
Oysters, Taiwanese Style
Ingredients:
1 cup shelled oysters
3 large dried black mushrooms, soaked for twenty minutes
1 green pepper
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon fermented wine lees
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
1/4 teaspoon wasabi powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon water
Preparation:
1. Blanch oysters in boiling water for half a minute. Drain and set aside.
2. Remove soaked mushrooms, reserve half cup of the liquid. Then remove their stems and cut in quarters. Seed the pepper, remove white material and cut into pieces size of the mushrooms.
3. Bring reserved mushroom water, rice wine, and wine lees to the boil, add mushrooms and simmer three minutes, then add peppers, and simmer another minute. Next add soy sauce, wasabi paste and powder, salt, and sugar, and the oysters. Bring to the boil, add cornstarch mixture, stir until thick and clear, pour into a medium-size bowl. Serve.
Roast Chicken with Wasabi Sauce
Ingredients:
1 pound or half a roast chicken
1/4 cup Chinese rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons wasabi paste
Preparation:
1. Cut chicken into two-inch pieces and put them on a serving plate, leaving the center empty for the dipping sauce.
2. Beat vinegar, sugar, sat, and wasabi paste until frothy, then stir until all bubbles are gone, then pour into a small bowl. Set the bowl in the center of the chicken. Serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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