Unusual Foods: Wasabi

—by Monica Rojas

Wasabi is a member of the Brassicaceae family (some other examples in this family are cabbages, horseradish, and mustard). It is sometimes referred to as Japanese horseradish. Its root is now used most frequently as a condiment because of its extremely strong flavor. Its hotness, less like a pepper’s hotness, produces vapors that stimulate the nasal passages over the tongue.

The plant grows naturally in streams and along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan, though methods have since been developed to cultivate it in regular farm fields. Wasabi has many known health benefits, and benefits are still being researched, due to its high numbers of antioxidants and isothiocyanates (also known as mustard oils).

It can be used in a variety of things, though it is most commonly known in connection to sushi. The wasabi paste eaten with sushi,
if made with real wasabi, loses its flavor extremely quickly (15 minutes after being exposed to oxygen). Because of this, high scale sushi restaurants will make it to order. On the other side of that, lower scale restaurants make “wasabi” using a substitution of horseradish powder.

Another commonly seen use of wasabi is in wasabi peas. Though the method of flavoring peas with wasabi can be used with a variety of legumes, peas have become the most prevalent.

A Japanese legend says that wasabi was discovered hundreds of years ago in a secluded mountain village by a farmer, who then decided to grow it. He is said to have shown it to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a Japanese warlord of the era. Ieyasu, who later became shogun, enjoyed it so much he had it declared a treasure, and made it illegal for it to be grown outside of the Shizuoka area.

Interesting fact:

Wasabi vapor acts very similarly to smelling salts. This has been used by researchers trying to create a smoke detector/alarm for the deaf. In one study they recorded a deaf subject who awoke within 10 seconds of the wasabi vapor alarm prototype being sprayed into the sleeping chamber. Using this research, scientists have discovered the ideal density of airborne wasabi to wake people in event of an emergency, for which they were awarded a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize.1


Wasabi Paste
Use equal amounts of wasabi powder and water. Stir vigorously and use quickly. It can be kept for a day in the refrigerator if you add olive oil, but it will lose a little kick.

Wasabi Mashed Potatoes
2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 ounces low-fat or fat-free sour cream
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
3 teaspoons prepared wasabi paste salt and pepper

Peel and quarter potatoes. Place in large pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook until fork tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and put potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Break up potatoes. Add sour cream, butter, 1⁄4 cup buttermilk, and prepared wasabi paste. Whip potatoes on medium speed. Add more buttermilk until the desired consistency is reached. Salt and pepper to taste.

Grilled Corn with Lime Cilantro Wasabi Butter
1 stick of butter
Softened zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
about 1 tablespoon of wasabi paste
corn in husk

1. Make the herb butter:
Combine all butter ingredients. Use fork to mash and mix well. Lay a large piece of plastic cling wrap on counter. Spoon the butter on the wrap and fold plastic wrap over. Using your hands, mold and roll into a cylinder shape. Place in refrigerator (or freezer if you’re in a hurry) and let chill for at least 30 minutes. This can be made up to 3 days in advance.

2. Grill the corn on the cob:
Preheat grill to 550°F. Carefully peel back some of the outer layers of husk and discard. Keep a couple of the soft, inner layers intact. If you have too many tough, outer layers, the corn takes longer to cook. Remove as much of the visible silky wisps as possible (which will burn on the grill). I like to soak the corn in water for 15 minutes. Remove corn from water, shake off excess water. Grill for 15–20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes to evenly char all sides. Remove the grilled corn on the cob with tongs and carefully peel back the husk (careful! it’s hot!). Top with slice of Lime Cilantro Wasabi Butter. Enjoy your deliciously grilled corn on the cob.

1. For more on the Ig Nobel Prize, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ig_Nobel_Prize .

[Monica Rojas works with elementary-age children, most textiles, and foods.]