Wasabi – Japanese Cuisine's Indispensable Condiment

Wasabi – The Flavor of Japan

Have you ever taken a bite of sushi and encountered a brisk spiciness that opened up your nose? That distinctive spiciness is well known to everyone in Japan as wasabi.
When grated, wasabi provides a spiciness that is refreshingly cool, and since ancient times it has been an indispensable condiment for sushi, sashimi, soba noodles and many other traditional Japanese dishes. In recent years its popularity as a cooking ingredient has spread worldwide, finding its way into various meat dishes and other non-Japanese cuisine.

What is Wasabi?

Wasabi is a plant of the Brassicaceae family native to Japan, and is spicy to the taste in its entirety: from the leaves and flowers all the way to the roots. The rhizome, or plant stem, of the wasabi plant is grated and served as an accompaniment for sushi and sashimi, while the rest of the plant is also used as a processed ingredient. Wasabi cultivated in wasabi paddies fed by fresh springs is called mizu wasabi, while that cultivated in fields within mountain forests is called hata wasabi. Mizu wasabi is primarily grown for its rhizome, which is used directly as an edible food, while hata wasabi is primarily grown for its leaves and flowers, which are used to make processed ingredients.
It should be noted that horseradish, which comes from Europe and is frequently used as a condiment with roast beef, is a different species from wasabi, despite being similar in color, shape and flavor.


mizu wasabi (a series of wasabi terraces)

hata wasabi (cultivated in field)

Benefits and Applications of Wasabi

Wasabi is said to have been used as a medicinal herb in Japan for more than 1,000 years, and ever since the 19th century its odor eliminating effects—particularly its ability to clear away ‘fishy’ odors—and antibacterial effects have been widely publicized, resulting in the popularization of nigiri-zushi (hand-formed sushi).
More recently, the component in wasabi responsible for its spicy flavor, isothiocyanate, has been reported to be effective in suppressing the proliferation of bacteria that causes food poisoning. Other properties include antiplatelet, antimicrobial, potentially anticarcinogenic effect, and bone health benefits. These and other effects have spurred the incorporation of wasabi within a broad range of industries, and it is now used in the production of foods, medicines and many other products.

Enjoying Wasabi

The various requirements of wasabi cultivation, such as having access to abundant spring water, limits the range of areas in which it can be grown and makes it a valuable agricultural product. As a result, even for people in Japan, wasabi consumption tends to be limited to upscale restaurants and other special situations. It is not something you typically find in the supermarket. However, while fresh wasabi may be a rare and valuable condiment elsewhere, it is readily available and casually consumed where it is grown in Shizuoka Prefecture.
This is particularly true for the wasabi growing regions of Izu and Shizuoka, where specialty shops sell traditional pickled wasabi, wasabi miso paste and many other processed food items. Plenty of restaurants have also taken to including wasabi in every conceivable dish, as reflected in the recently popularity of wasabi ice cream with grated wasabi on top and wasabi rice bowl dishes that put wasabi on top of the rice. By all means, anyone visiting Japan who wants to enjoy authentic wasabi should take a trip to Shizuoka.

wasabi rice bowl dishes

traditional pickled wasabi

Casual and Fun Processed Wasabi

How did a valuable food item like wasabi become so universally known among the Japanese? It happened thanks to the development of wasabi in a tube, wasabi paste and other processed products. The spicy flavor of wasabi is notoriously volatile and short-lived, so in order to preserve wasabi’s spiciness, processed wasabi mixes wasabi with horseradish and other ingredients to create an inexpensive and easy to use product that has found its way into households throughout Japan. In addition, improvements in processing technology have opened up a whole range of new product possibilities, such as wasabi-flavored salad dressing and wasabi-flavored snack foods, which allow the Japanese to enjoy a flavor that is so familiar to them but which is now a part of any number of foods.

Taking Wasabi Worldwide

Wasabi’s growing international popularity has gone hand in hand with the growing popularity of sushi. In recent years wasabi has started to be combined with meats and cheeses and all sorts of non-Japanese dishes, and—given that it has already found its way into restaurants and kitchens around the world—the scope of these new and varied uses for wasabi will likely only expand further.