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Wasabi is a popular Japanese condiment typically eaten with sushi. However, the green paste served in many American sushi restaurants isn’t necessarily the real thing.

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What Is Wasabi?

Wasabi (Wasabia japonica)—also known as Japanese horseradish—is a rhizome that is grated and sprinkled on food to provide a potent, mustardy punch. Wasabi is a member of the Brassica family, which includes other mustards and horseradish. It is a notoriously temperamental and expensive plant to harvest, making the authentic product very difficult to produce.

Wasabi is a staple of Japanese cuisine often served alongside dishes like sushi and sashimi. Because wasabi is difficult to grow and expensive to buy, the green “wasabi” paste that most sushi restaurants in North America serve is not authentic wasabi, but a mixture of ingredients like horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and food coloring.

What Is Wasabi Made Of?

The sinus-clearing heat of real wasabi comes from a mustard oil allyl isothiocyanate, which is a different sensation than the on-the-tongue burn caused by capsaicin in hot peppers. Wasabi is grated into shavings or ground into wasabi paste, which can be used as a condiment for a number of dishes like sushi, sashimi, and soba. The “wasabi” paste served in many American sushi restaurants is not pure wasabi, but is a mixture of horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and food coloring.

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Differences Between Real Wasabi and Imitation Wasabi?

There are a number of key differences between authentic Japanese wasabi, and the “wasabi” paste served in American sushi restaurants.

  • Price: Authentic wasabi is a notoriously difficult plant to grow, which makes it cost-prohibitive—up to $300 per kilo. The horseradish-based wasabi paste is accessible enough for American sushi restaurants to share liberally because horseradish is easy to grow and inexpensive. Imitation wasabi may cost around $5 per kilo.
  • Flavor: True wasabi has a gently aromatic and herbaceous taste—it’s known for its spiciness, but not its heat. Imitation wasabi contains horseradish, which makes the condiment both spicy and hot, with a tendency to instantly clear out your nasal passages.
  • Ingredients: Real wasabi root is shaved or grated and paired with food on its own. Fake wasabi is a thicker paste, typically made with a mixture of horseradish, cornstarch, mustard flour, and green food coloring.

How to Serve Wasabi

Wasabi has a number of uses that make it a versatile addition to any number of meals. Wasabi is often enjoyed alongside these dishes in its authentic or imitation “wasabi” paste form.

  1. Sushi and sashimi dishes. Wasabi is a popular accompaniment to sushi rolls or sashimi. It can be added to soy sauce for dipping or spread directly onto raw fish.
  2. Salad dressing. Add wasabi to rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar to make a spicy vinaigrette for Asian-inspired salad dishes.
  3. Sandwiches. Wasabi is a mustard that enhances many different kinds of sandwiches. You can mix it with mayonnaise to spice up a salmon wrap or add it to a grilled cheese sandwich for extra heat.
  4. Soba. Soba are Japanese noodles that are simply served with dipping sauce, and can be eaten hot or cold. Soba noodles are a mild dish, so wasabi is often served alongside for an extra kick.
  5. Soups and stews. Wasabi can also be added to soups and stews to up the heat content in a rich, hearty dish.