The flavor of real wasabi is rounder, more vegetal and complex than that of the fake stuff. And never fear: It’ll still clear your head.
THAT NEON-GREEN, sinus-searing blob of wasabi that comes with your sushi isn’t wasabi at all. It’s mustard and/or horseradish, plus food coloring. Those who mash as much as possible of it into a pool of soy sauce, dredge their sushi in it, swallow and crow about how they can take the heat aren’t tasting the fish or actual wasabi. And they’re probably breaking their sushi chef’s heart.
The flavor of real wasabi is rounder, more vegetal and complex than that of the fake stuff. Its green is paler, prettier, more celadon than neon. The texture is soft, almost creamy, instead of grainy. And never fear: It’ll still clear your head.
If you want to make Hajime Sato happy, just request it. “I love it when people ask,” he says. “I think that happens like once a week.” The chef/owner of West Seattle’s all-sustainable sushi restaurant Mashiko attempted to switch to all-genuine wasabi about seven years ago, at great expense — the real thing can cost $100 a pound, unlike the inexpensive pistachio-colored paste. His customers revolted, inundating him with comment cards saying things like, “You changed to the cheap crap.”
Where to get fresh wasabi
Mashiko: 4725 California S.W., Seattle, 206-935-4339, mashikorestaurant.com
Uwajimaya: Bellevue and Seattle, uwajimaya.com
Pacific Coast Wasabi:wasabia.com
Territorial Seed Company:territorialseed.com
“People were like, ‘You know, Hajime, your wasabi used to be good, and you changed your brand, and it sucks. I’m never coming back,’ ” Sato says. He had to give up. “I almost lost my business over that.” Now he offers both — serving the real thing, with joy, to those who know enough to want it.
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True wasabi is a funny-looking root, greenish-white and somewhat carrot-shaped. Its leaves look like those of a geranium. In the wild in Japan, it grows on the doubtlessly picturesque shady banks of streams, in pebbly soil. Here, growers such as Linda Dowdell and Ron Thomson in Sequim replicate the environment in greenhouses with eight inches of pea-sized gravel and plenty of water. Some say the hydroponic, relatively warm conditions make it cozy for pests, though Dowdell and Thomson haven’t had trouble.
In general, wasabi is thought to be difficult to grow. Not for a mysterious woman in West Seattle who called Mashiko one day. She said she had a bunch she wanted to bring in; Sato didn’t quite believe her. Then there she was, with big, beautiful wasabi plants. She grows them in the shadow of her garage, in regular soil, in a raised bed, she told him. He paid her “a good chunk of change,” in cash, which surprised her. She didn’t want to give him her phone number, but she’s come back with more wasabi since. “She’s really secret about it,” Sato says. “She’s kind of a strange lady, but I love her.”
If you’ve got a bit of shady dirt, you could try to grow your own, too. The Territorial Seed Company sells springtime starts of Wasabia japonica ‘Daruma’, providing encouraging instructions for Pacific Northwest gardeners (containers are good, they say). Wasabi also is usually in stock at Uwajimaya, or you can order it by the half-pound from Pacific Coast Wasabi (the company that buys Dowdell and Thomson’s crop).
At Mashiko, Sato grates wasabi root over Kumamoto oysters on the half-shell, adding a little ponzu and a few tiny radish sprouts. Or he’ll make yellowfin tuna sashimi with threads of daikon, shiso and fresh wasabi. The plant has antimicrobial properties, making it an ideal companion for raw fish or shellfish. The young, spring-green leaves or grated stems, Sato says, add “a little kick” to a salad. His oysters are superlative: coolness contrasted with heat, the salty wash of the oyster liquor lingering with the wasabi’s buzz.