Posted October 20, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Exotic wasabi

Restaurants and home cooks taking to the flavor of the month
Wednesday, October 20, 2004BY BETH D’ADDONO
For the Star-Ledger

Wasabi may just be the goat cheese of our culinary generation.

Just as Wolfgang Puck revolutionized the humble pizza back in the early ’80s with the addition of goat cheese (soon to be followed by sun-dried tomatoes), wasabi is jump-starting taste buds well outside the realm of sushi bars and Japanese restaurants.
Becoming more and more familiar in the gastronomic lexicon, wasabi is used for everything from spiking a Bloody Mary to electrifying a plate of mashed potatoes and jazzing up a jar of mayo.

Grown in the shade in clear, running streams and harvested by hand high in the mountains of Japan as early as the 10th century, true wasabi (wasabia japonica) is a member of the mustard family. The pungent flavor comes from the plant’s root, which can be grated, like horseradish, or dried into a powder form.

The staple Japanese condiment, in its pure form, is pricey, which spawned a demand for wannabe wasabi — the powdered “wasabi” most often reconstituted with water and served in most restaurants is actually a blend of horseradish, Chinese mustard, green food coloring and sometimes, a scant bit of the real thing.

There are two major producers of authentic wasabi outside of Japan, one here in the states, Pacific Farms in Oregon, the other in New Zealand, although New Zealand Wasabi Limited is now being distributed here in America.

“We use both types of wasabi,” said James Laird, chef/owner of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham. “The actual root is about $20 a pound, and has a much stronger and cleaner flavor than the cheaper powder.”

Laird already knows that wasabi has gone mainstream, and he features the Asian flavoring in a couple of dishes on his menu. “The number of people eating Japanese-inspired food is huge now, compared to what it was five years ago,” he said. “You can get wasabi paste in grocery stores that never would have carried it a few years ago.”

Kate Erd, manager of the Wisconsin-based TheSpice House (www.thespicehouse.com), which distributes the New Zealand product, has seen a great demand for wasabi over the past few years, which she sells for $7.49 for a 1-ounce jar (as opposed to $2.99 for a 1-ounce jar of the horseradish-blended powder).

“I think people are eating more sushi, and they are also entertaining more at home, ” he says.

Supermarket products such as wasabi coated peas, wasabi rice crackers, wasabi chips, wasabi mayonnaise, wasabi peanuts and wasabi salad dressings testify to growing consumer demand. McCormick spices added wasabi powder to its gourmet collection line of spices a few years ago, a result of market research attesting to American’s craving for big, bold flavors. French’s GourMayo line of mayonnaise debuted in 2002 with a wasabi horseradish flavor, again a byproduct of market research.

“We consult with chefs and food critics from around the world to anticipate flavor trends like wasabi,” said Elliott Penner, president of French’s Foods. “It’s now our number one seller.”

The ethnic food industry has grown to an $800 million-a-year business, making it profitable for companies like French’s to get in on the act.

“I equate it to the boom in hot sauces,” said Tracy Griffith, author of “Sushi American Style” (Clarkson Potter, $22.50). Griffith, an actress like her sister Melanie, is also the first female graduate of the California Sushi Academy and part owner of Rika Restaurant in L.A.

“It used to be that the only hot sauce you could get was Tabasco. Now, there are thousands of different sauces on the market. People are exploring more adventurous types of flavors, especially in the picante area.”

Griffith, who created flavorful, American-style sushi recipes using cooked ingredients, uses wasabi in her BLT handroll and roast beef roll with wasabi cream cheese.

“In Japan, wasabi is used very judiciously, especially with sashimi, or raw fish,” she said. “It is added to the soy dipping sauce which, to the Japanese, is enough of a flavor enhancer. Americans seem to really like to pile it on.”

Wasabi is not just valued for its sinus-clearing flavor, but also for its possible health qualities, according to Michael Van Mellaerts of New Zealand Wasabi Limited.

“The Japanese have long believed that wasabi improves the health and fights off illnesses. This has now been borne out by a large (and increasing) number of scientific studies on the actions of the naturally occurring ingredients within the Wasabia japonica plant. A number of studies have shown that the active ingredients in wasabi are able to kill a number of different types of cancer cells, reduce the possibility of getting blood clots, encourage the body’s own defenses to discard cells that have started to mutate, and act as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent against food poisons,” said Van Mellaerts in an e-mail response to questions about wasabi. Wasabi also contains a considerable amount of potassium and fair amounts of calcium and vitamin C.

While the jury is still out on just how good for you wasabi really is, there’s no denying that it packs a wallop of a flavor punch. “You need to use it judiciously,” said Laird. “What I like about it is that its fiery hot flavor quickly dissipates in the mouth, leaving a lingering sweet taste, with no burning sensation, unlike chilis, for instance, that continue to burn.”

Wasabi isn’t something he used alone as an ingredient, said the chef. “It always must be mixed with other ingredients like soy, rice vinegar or orange juice, to make the most of its flavor.” Although the flavor of the actual root is cleaner, Laird has no problem using the powdered variety in most dishes.

“It’s what our palate is used to, since that’s what most restaurants serve,” he said.

Griffith doesn’t see wasabi going out of style anytime soon. “I think wasabi is here to stay.”

Wasabi - Growing
Visit Fresh Wasabi – A Wasabi Farm in Oregon to get more information on Wasbi or even order some Fresh Wasabi.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog