Japanese ingredients for your healthy life

The history of wasabi

Discovering wasabi

Wasabi is a Japanese plant or root vegetable (it is known in English as Japanese Horseradish) with a thick green root which tastes like strong horseradish and is used in cookery, especially in powder or paste forms as an accompaniment to raw fish. The wasabi plant is a member of the Brassicaceae family (which also includes cabbages, horseradish and mustard).


So where does this innocent little paste with the unbelievable potency come from, what is its history? No surprises as you will already know that Wasabi is Japanese, it was said to have originated in the Izu peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture. Wasabi plants grow naturally in stream beds, particularly where there is clean water free from impurities.


Wasabi has been part of Japanese life and culture for many centuries. Wasabi is known to have been around in Japan as far back as the 10th century according to ancient records. During this early time it was believed that as well as being used as ingredients in cooking and as food, wasabi was also used as a medicine. There are written records of vegetarian wasabi dishes that were primarily served at Buddhist temples between 1000-1500, dating right back to the middle ages. Between 1185-1333 wasabi was commonly used as ingredients in chilled soups. Gradually over time these dishes spread around to the general population, and as it continued to spread more and more uses were found for this hot little plant. Prior to the 16th century wasabi plants grew naturally in mountain regions, by the end of the Azuchi Momoyama period (1573-1603) they began to cultivate the plant. The first to do this were local villagers in central Japan where wasabi was already growing naturally.


It is said that one of the first uses of wasabi after becoming famous with the general population was as ingredients in sushi, not for flavour but to add to raw fish to prevent it from spoiling. You see, if not eaten or used quickly, wasabi tends to lose its flavour and hotness after around 15 minutes (that is if it is made fresh using good ingredients) so when the wasabi is placed between the fish and the vegetables in sushi it preserves the flavour and hotness until it is eaten, clever isn’t it?


The root of the Wasabi plant is used as a condiment and has an extremely strong flavour; it is also used as ingredients in cooking. Its hotness is more like hot mustard - the vapours tend to stimulate the nasal passages more than they do the tongue, so whilst you might not feel a burning sensation or experience a numb tongue it will certainly help you to clear any sinuses.


Because the burning sensation of wasabi is not oil based it is only a short burning sensation compared to that of a chilli, the burning sensation will go away after a short time and it is recommended you eat and drink as normal which will assist in the alleviation of the burning. It is very important to remember that less is always more when it comes to Wasabi; the more you have the more painful the burn is going to be.


Wasabi is a very delicate plant; it requires certain climate conditions, lovely cool temperature and a mountain stream. It takes about a year and a half to harvest. Wasabi plants also grow little flowers on them, these bloom around the beginning of spring. This flower is also edible and pickled generally in soy sauce.


Wasabi can be bought in three different ways, generally for traditional Japanese cooking Wasabi is purchased as a root which is then finely grated down before use, it can be brought as dried powder in large quantities (a great option for Japanese restaurateurs) or the most commonly sold version to the general public is as paste in tubes (similar to a tube of toothpaste).
In traditional high end Japanese restaurants wasabi is prepared fresh to order and is made using the root to form a paste. If this fresh mixture is left uncovered for 15 minutes it can lose its flavour. In sushi preparation, sushi chefs usually put the wasabi between the fish and rice because covering the wasabi sauce until serves preserves and keeps its flavour.


It is quite common also for legumes such as, peanuts, soybeans or peas to be roasted or fried and then coated with wasabi powder (the wasabi powder has been combined with sugar, oil and salt), these are then eaten as a delicious crunchy snack that can be considered healthy by some but with the added amounts of salt and sugar can become quite unhealthy and should be eaten moderately in small portion sizes.


Nowadays everyone knows what wasabi is, although most people relate wasabi to a painful, burning experience. However, if used properly wasabi can actually really add valuable flavour boosting capabilities to any dish, how about these ones for instance:


  • Try a combination of soy sauce and wasabi to eat on your sashimi
  • Mix wasabi in with some cold soba noodles
  • Paste it between the fish and veggies in your sushi rolls
  • Try a wasabi zuke ? (a Japanese wasabi pickle)
  • Eat some wasabi peanuts or peas (famous in japan)
  • Wasabi salad dressing for that extra kick ? mixed with sesame and ginger for a flavour packed punch
  • Wasabi mayonnaise ? if you dare, mix a bit in at home to make your own
  • Wasabi BBQ hot sauce ? great for grilling seafood and chicken


What once was a condiment that most have been afraid of (maybe since that first time you ate too much of it thinking it was some avocado on your sushi plate) is now something enjoyed around the world. You are now armed with information and knowledge that will help you eat and enjoy this fine flavour enhancing condiment, so what are you waiting for ? off you go, go experiment! (Just make sure you have some water nearby)