From deep dish pizza to maple syrup and agave, almost everywhere you travel and every culture you step into will have a special culinary delight—something that’s unique to their neck of the woods. If you head into the mountains of Northern Japan, you’ll find one that can teach us something special: Wasabi!
With it’s pungent yet sweet taste, real wasabi is a true treat. But try to order it at your local sushi place and you’re bound to receive the fake version; a mixture of plants closely related. Why is this?
On this edition of Saturday’s Around the World, we’re traveling to meet one of the wasabi farmers keeping this multigenerational tradition alive. And along the way, we’re going to learn all about the intricacies of one of the most difficult crops to grow in the world, what makes it this way, why wasabi is so expensive, and why, much to our own surprise, the fake version is necessary!
This is a great reminder of all the people out there upholding traditions around the world and keeping these delicious, real products available for generations to come.
The delicacies of our own communities may begin to look a bit different. So, let’s get started…
Alright, so you know that thick green paste that usually accompanies your sushi? This is most likely a mixture of horseradish, food coloring, and mustard. Although it’s delicious, this isn’t true wasabi!
The only place you’re going to find real wasabi growing naturally is along streams in the mountains of Japan. (Learn more about how and where wasabi grows in this article.) During its approximate 18-month growing period, the plant needs constant running spring water, to be tended to by hand, rocky soil or gravel to grow in, and for the temperatures to be just right.
The time and specificities are what make this treat hard to come by in your typical restaurant setting. It’s expensive! Costing anywhere up from $160 per kilogram (2.2 lbs).
And to get the true, delicious flavor of this plant, you need to act fast.
“If you take a slice of wasabi and eat it like a carrot, you’ll get very little flavor: only what your teeth are able to break down. The grater breaks down the cells walls, brings the two compounds together, and a significant fact in that chemical reaction is the byproduct, which is sucrose. So you get a natural sweetness in wasabi. And that’s what surprises people when they eat: wasabi is naturally sweet and it’s very floral—much more aromatic—and it still has the pungency that everyone’s familiar with.” — Jon Old, Wasabi Company
Within 30 minutes of grating fresh wasabi, the intricate flavors brought to the surface will be gone; making it impossible to prepare ahead of time. The taste of the real thing is so fleeting and rare that offering it with every sushi roll in the world, and then allowing most of it to be thrown out, is unthinkable. So to get somewhat of the same experience, they offer a fake version made out of plants closely related to wasabi.
In this great video, Business Insider gives us the scoop on the reasons why this happens and brings us into the operation of the first company in Britain that managed to grow wasabi commercially outside of Japan, the Wasabi Company!
Who knew that the green paste that we’re dabbing on our food is actually based off of such an interesting plant! This never really occurred to me—I’ve always just assumed that wasabi was a product name; it never crossed my mind that this flavor could be achieved from one single plant.
Now, you better bet that tasting real freshly ground wasabi is on my dream food list!
In fact, we can grow our own!
Apparently, it isn’t all that difficult to grow a couple of our own wasabi plants. If we live in climates where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate all that much (and even if it does, it seems there are ways around that), plant it in porous soil, ensure non-stagnant water, and have plenty of shade, we could have a nice stalk of our own wasabi in about a year.
Take a look at this article to learn more!
Okay, so now that we’ve learned a little more about this plant, let’s head out to Japan to meet the wasabi farmer passing on the traditional ways!
As we saw in the first video, growing wasabi on a large scale takes a lot of time and specific resources. Everything must be done by hand, and we see that reflected in the price.
So we’re heading into the Izu Peninsula of Japan to see how wasabi is grown in its natural soils at the beautiful Iriya Manaka Wasabi Farm! Shigeo Iida, the farms 8th generation owner, shows us the intricacies of their breathtaking operation and explains the medicinal properties this plant is believed to have.
Isn’t that amazing?
There’s something really special about this plant. It requires such a specific environment and steward in the farmer who is keeping this tradition alive. Wasabi was made for this place. But it’s this exact specificity that makes the traditional farming difficult to continue. And why this very traditional farm we just saw is so special.
It gets even better though. National Geographic gives us the low down on more uses for wasabi, like creating new, more effective pain medication in this great article.
Real vs. Fake
So, what’s going on when we are so willing to accept something that is only masquerading as the real thing? Sometimes, as with wasabi, we don’t even know the switch from real to fake is happening!
And maybe we are seeing that happening all around us with products traditionally made with great care and rare expertise.
I see this every day with one unique food that Vermont is famous for producing in its Green Mountains.
Every spring for generations, my family, like many others in the state, has been making real maple syrup (you know, from trees). “Sugaring” (what locals call the process of making syrup) is an iconic part of Vermont’s culture!
And for every drop of the delicious real thing, there are countless details that have to be done exactly right, involving the hands of many. If that wasn’t complex enough, the weather alone can make or break the brief Spring season. It takes the perfect balance of cold and warm weather for the sap to flow from the trees. A lot, if not most, of the process is entirely in natures hands.
But when everything falls into place, we get the pleasure of enjoying pure maple syrup, straight from the evaporator rig! (That’s a system that turns most of the water in the sap into steam, leaving only the thick liquid gold that we pour over pancakes, french fries, and anything else, really.)
The “fake” products help share the experience.
Aunt Jemima and the other knock-offs would never suit the tastes of someone who grew up with only real maple syrup. As I’m sure those who grew up with the taste of real wasabi wouldn’t be thrilled with what comes in the take-out box. But those of us who are lucky to have experienced “real things” around the world are becoming rarer. Both of these products are hard for a lot of people to access!
Real maple syrup costs anywhere from $25-$30 a gallon, and we can casually pick up a bottle of the fake syrup for $3 or $4. Real wasabi is about $160 per kilogram (2.2 lbs). We can see which way small restaurant owners and families will likely lean.
So while we’re enjoying the dupes, it’s good to remember where the flavors they’re trying to mimic come from. And perhaps, when we can swing it, try our best to get the “real thing” when we can. It often supports some real people doing something really important that should be preserved forever.
And it’s just awesome to sit back and think about everything the Earth produces that bring us small joys; whether that be a very finicky plant or sap from a tree.
There are traditions and generations of families behind each of these products! Both wasabi and maple syrup are a labor of love; a lofty, intense workload and years of knowledge need to be present to bring them to us.
So much of history and our lives are impacted by the food we eat. Learning more about them is always a fascinating journey.
Stay open to new possibilities!
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” —Albert Einstein
What “fakes” would you like to enjoy the real versions of?
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