Wasabi is known across the world as a condiment for sushi.
According to Japanese legend, wasabi was discovered hundreds of years ago in a remote mountain village by a farmer who decided to grow it. He reportedly showed it to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a Japanese warlord of the era. Ieyasu, who later became Shogun, liked it so much he declared it a treasure only to be grown in the Shizuoka area.
Excavations of archeological remains have revealed that Japanese ate wasabi (wasabia japonica Matsumura) as early as the Jomon period (around 14,000 BC to 400 BC).
The word “wasabi” can be found in “Honzo Wamyo,” Japan’s oldest encyclopedia of medicinal plants. This also tells us that wasabi was used medicinally at this time.
It is thought that wasabi was first cultivated in the early Edo period (1603 to 1868).
Wasabi is first thought to have begun being used in the modern way as a seasoning for sushi during the Bunka/Bunsei era of the Edo period (1804 to 1830).
The popularity of wasabi in English-speaking countries has tracked that of sushi, growing steadily starting in about 1980.
The plant grows naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan.
Wasabi is a perennial, root-like rhizome that is cylindrical in shape. A brownish-green skin covers its pale green flesh. The plant grows to about 46 centimeters (18 inches) in height and produces leaves on long stems from the crown of the plant. As the plant ages, the leaves fall off and a rhizome, or creeping underground stem, is formed, from which new buds arise as modified stems.
Wasabi is one of the most expensive crops on the planet. Wasabi goes for nearly $160 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Fresh wasabi is insanely expensive because it’s incredibly difficult to grow on a commercial scale. In fact, wasabi is “deemed by most experts to be the most difficult plant in the world to grow commercially,” according to BBC.
Wasabi is generally sold either as a rhizome or stem, which must be very finely grated before use, as dried powder, or as a ready-to-use paste in tubes similar to toothpaste tubes.
In some high-end restaurants, the paste is prepared when the customer orders, and is made using a grater to grate the stem; once the paste is prepared, it loses flavor in 15 minutes if left uncovered.
Wasabi is similar in taste to hot mustard or horseradish rather than chili peppers in that it stimulates the nose more than the tongue.
There are 109 calories in 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of wasabi.
Wasabi is a very good source of Dietary Fiber and Vitamin C. It is also a good source of Vitamin B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese.
The health benefits of wasabi include cancer prevention, heal respiratory disorder, fighting inflammation, preventing stomach infections, support healthy digestion, prevent arthritis, support healthy heart and help detoxify the body. Other benefits includes slowing down the aging process and supporting weight loss.
As the demand for real wasabi is very high, Japan imports an amount from Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Thailand and New Zealand. In North America, a handful of companies and small farmers cultivate Wasabia japonica. In Europe wasabi is grown commercially in Iceland and the UK.
In the United States, true wasabi is generally found only at specialty grocers and high-end restaurants.
Inhaling or sniffing wasabi vapor has an effect like smelling salts, a property exploited by researchers attempting to create a smoke alarm for the deaf. One deaf subject participating in a test of the prototype awoke within 10 seconds of wasabi vapor sprayed into his sleeping chamber. The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the researchers for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to wake people in the event of an emergency.