If you like Japanese food, you’ve probably tried wasabi to accompany sushi or juicy sashimi cuts. It has a unique greenish color and polarizing zingy flavor.
However, chances are you’ve never actually eaten real wasabi. About 90% of wasabi in supermarkets and restaurants is probably fake and made out of horseradish. Even if it contains wasabi, it will only amount to about 1% of the total ingredients.
In this article, I’ll get into the real wasabi vs. fake wasabi debate and answer the ultimate question – what’s the difference between them?
|Real Wasabi||Fake Wasabi|
|Source||Derived from Wasabia japonica rhizome (root-like stem)||Made from a mix of horseradish, mustard powder, and green food coloring|
|Types||Squeeze Tube Wasabi Paste, Wasabi Rhizome, Wasabi Powder||Mostly comes in a paste or powdered form|
|Appearance||Natural green color which can vary to darker, lighter or even brownish green||Light-green due to added food coloring|
|Texture||Freshly grated wasabi is gritty||Thick and pasty|
|Taste||Vibrant with a hint of heat that fades rapidly; more aromatic than spicy||Overpowering with distinct heat from mustard seed powder|
|Spiciness||Not traditionally spicy; aroma similar to spice||Spicy due to the combination of horseradish and mustard|
|Shelf-life of Flavor||Loses flavor about 15 minutes after grating||Maintains its flavor for days after grating; even longer when refrigerated or frozen|
|Growing Process||Difficult and specific: requires rocky soil, running spring water, and shade||Easier to grow; horseradish thrives in rich, fast-draining soil and full sun|
|Price||About $160-$300 per kilogram||Around $5 or less per kilogram|
|Health Benefits||Antibacterial, antibiotic, and potential cancer-preventive qualities||Allyl isothiocyanate helps prevent growth of bacteria and fungi causing food poisoning|
|Common Place of Service||Elite sushi restaurants; rarely found in standard establishments||Most sushi restaurants and supermarkets worldwide, including over 95% of wasabi served in Japan|
|Origin||Japan and a few farms in North America||Anywhere; doesn't have strict growing requirements|
Types of Wasabi
Let’s first discuss the types of wasabi that’s out there – there are three general types.
Squeeze Tube Wasabi Paste
This is something that should be sold and transported frozen. Once you’ve started using it, keep the rest in the fridge.
It’s not as nice as fresh wasabi, but it’s a lot better than imitation wasabi.
This must be grated by hand, ideally with a sharkskin paddle. This type of wasabi is hugely expensive and difficult to acquire.
Fortunately, a few internet businesses sell genuine root these days.
A wasabi rhizome may be stored in the fridge if kept hydrated for at least a month.
This is less costly than the paste version or the plant’s root, but it isn’t anywhere near as tasty.
Even so, it outperforms the fake wasabi.
Real wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish, is derived from a plant of the Brassicaceae family.
It resembles a root vegetable rather than a spice and is created from the rhizome of a wasabi root (the underground stem component). This stem is finely grated to make authentic wasabi paste.
When you shred wasabi, the volatile chemicals that give it its distinct flavor start to degrade within minutes. Hence, authentic wasabi paste really packs a punch when it’s truly fresh.
However, wasabi is also tough to grow, making it a costly plant to buy. On the other hand, fake wasabi paste is inexpensive and has a lengthy shelf-life.
What Does Real Wasabi Taste Like?
Freshly grated wasabi tastes vibrant, with a hint of heat that fades rapidly.
It has more of an aroma of spiciness than being actually spicy. Yet the pungent taste is subtle enough to enable the flavor of the raw fish to shine through.
Wasabi, which is eaten with sushi, is designed to bring out the taste of the fish rather than mask it.
To balance the intensity of flavors, the top sushi restaurants would place wasabi onto each piece of sushi, typically nigiri style.
Is Real Wasabi Spicy?
Real wasabi takes the exquisite flavor of fish to a new level. It is not spicy in the traditional sense.
In terms of smell, it’s more like a spice, but without the unpleasant aroma of the fake stuff’s mustard seed flower. This makes fake wasabi spicier than real wasabi.
After grating, the wasabi root loses its taste in around 15 minutes. It all comes down to the volatile molecules generated when you grate wasabi.
This gives the plant its kick, but these chemicals are also time-limited. The taste begins to fade as soon as it’s exposed to air.
What Color Is Real Wasabi?
Real wasabi is naturally green. When the root of the wasabi plant is grated, you can clearly see the natural green color.
You don’t need to add any food coloring as you do to fake wasabi regarding the sauce.
After grating, the wasabi root can be darker green, lighter, and even brownish.
Why Is Real Wasabi So Rare?
When you eat wasabi, you’re actually eating horseradish that has been colored green 90% of the time.
Real wasabi is incredibly rare and costly. One kilogram of wasabi may cost up to $250. That is the primary reason why it’s so scarce.
As mentioned, wasabi belongs to the Brassicaceae family. It’s related to cabbage, broccoli, horseradish, and mustard.
For that reason, horseradish is frequently used as a wasabi substitute. Unlike its botanical relatives, Wasabi is one of the most challenging plants to produce and maintain.
Japanese mountain streams, for example, are one of the few places where wasabi grows organically.
Wasabi plants require specific conditions to grow and flourish, including continual running spring water, rocky soil, shade, and year-round temperatures ranging from 46° to 68° Fahrenheit.
It’s also a fragile plant that may be damaged by tiny environmental changes or humidity.
Most wasabi is grown in Japan, while a few farms have sprouted up in North America. But why cultivate such a fussy plant? Because the rhizomes may fetch more than $75 per pound.
For that reason, you won’t find the “real thing” in most restaurants and certainly not at the grocery store.
Wasabi in most restaurants and supermarkets is a concoction of horseradish, mustard powder, and green food coloring.
The nasal-clearing effects of horseradish and mustard combine to create the impression that you’re eating the real thing, and the food coloring gives it a green tinge.
Some mixes contain cornstarch or other chemical modifiers to help the powder thicken, similar to freshly grated wasabi.
What Does Fake Wasabi Taste Like?
Real wasabi is always presented freshly grated to capture the greatest taste.
The traditional way to grate wasabi is to run the root in circles over sharkskin, which works like sandpaper and shears very thin pieces of wasabi off the root.
Companies may duplicate the taste, fragrance, and overall flavor of wasabi by combining horseradish, mustard, and other spices.
The strong flavor of fake wasabi overpowers the delicate flavor of the fish. It has a distinct heat that comes from the mustard seed powder.
Note that when wasabi is thick and pasty, it’s probably horseradish wasabi. If the texture is gritty from freshly grated wasabi, it is more likely to be real wasabi from wasabi roots.
Is Fake Wasabi Spicy?
As previously stated, fake wasabi is spicy. Because it is made out of horseradish.
Horseradish, unlike wasabi roots, keeps its tangy flavor long after grating.
In addition, mustard powder is added to the mix, providing tremendous heat.
What Color Is Fake Wasabi?
The crux of the real wasabi vs. fake wasabi debate is the color. As already established, wasabi is naturally green.
That said, it can sometimes be dark, light, or even brownish-green.
In contrast, fake wasabi is made out of horseradish, which is white when grated. Manufacturers add green food coloring to mustard to imitate the real deal, making it light-green.
Do They Use Fake Wasabi in Japan?
The small green balls that sting noses and adorn sushi plates worldwide are rarely what their name implies.
In most cases, sushi restaurants serve a horseradish-based mixture laced with several types of mustard and a slew of additional chemicals.
Because real wasabi is so rare, few people have actually tried it. In America, 99% of wasabi is likely fake. That is also true almost everywhere else.
Even though people don’t recognize it, over 95% of wasabi in Japan is fake.
Although the Japanese food culture still uses wasabi, the fact that it’s tough to grow and maintain means you won’t find it in every restaurant in Japan.
But when you try it, you will definitely know the difference between the real wasabi vs. fake wasabi debate
Side-by-Side Comparison: Real Wasabi vs. Fake Wasabi
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Real and Fake Wasabi?
Look at the texture of the wasabi sauce first if you want to know how to distinguish between real and fake wasabi.
When wasabi becomes rich and pasty, it indicates that it is created from horseradish. If the texture of freshly grated wasabi is gritty, it’s more likely to be real wasabi rather than fake.
Because shredded wasabi quickly loses its zingy taste, it’s always served fresh.
In an elite sushi restaurant, the chefs would meticulously grate the perfect quantity of this plant to eat with the sushi and harmonize the taste of the fish.
It’s frequently wedged between the nigari sushi topping and the rice to keep it as fresh as possible.
If, by any chance, you see a chef grating something green every fifteen minutes, that is most likely real wasabi.
Real Wasabi Is Harder to Grow Than Fake Wasabi
Real wasabi is made by shredding the root-like stem (named a rhizome) of Wasabia japonica, a perennial herb native to Japan.
It resembles a green horseradish root in appearance and has similar flavor qualities.
The reason is that wasabi belongs to the same Brassica family as horseradish and mustard do, so using horseradish powder works so well as a substitute works so well.
However, it’s not impossible to grow, and many plants survive the germination stage.
The next challenge to overcome is a fungal disease and stem rot. Both of which plague plants growing in moist environments.
Even if everything goes well and illness is avoided, the plant might take up to three years to grow.
While in contrast, horseradish grows best on rich, fast-draining soil and in full view of the sun.
Before planting, select a location that is far away from any other plants that you care about. Horseradish spreads swiftly and may take over your garden in no time at all.
Fake Wasabi Is Much Cheaper Than Real Wasabi
At the time of writing, a kilogram of exported wasabi was approximately $160 in 2022. The price has risen by around 10% over the years, with some establishments paying up to $300 per kilogram.
In comparison to the sales price of the more convenient to grow mustard and horseradish, which are likely available for less than $5 per kilogram, it’s clear to see why many establishments prefer imitation wasabi powders.
While real wasabi isn’t as expensive as many of the world’s most expensive delicacies, it’s still much too expensive to give away for free.
Real Wasabi Has More Health Benefits Than Fake Wasabi
Real wasabi may have cancer-preventive qualities alongside its antibacterial and antibiotic characteristics.
The same chemical that gives wasabi its fiery sensation may be linked to malignant cells and cause cell death.
Surprisingly, these substances selectively target faulty protein cells while avoiding normal cells, making them highly effective.
Wasabi also includes isothiocyanates, which can neutralize carcinogens and limit cancer cell proliferation.
While it may not cure cancer, horseradish is still beneficial to your health. This is because it has a chemical that may help protect against food poisoning.
A chemical known as allyl isothiocyanate is produced when wasabi and horseradish are grated. It may be challenging to say, but its purpose is straightforward: to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that cause food poisoning.
That’s excellent news, as eating raw or undercooked fish (like sushi) poses several health risks, including the transmission of salmonella, listeria, and tapeworms.
Note that you can still get sick from a bad fish even while eating horseradish and wasabi. Therefore, it’s best to ensure that the fish you eat is fresh and prepared properly.
Real Wasabi Loses Its Flavor Quickly Compared to Fake
When grating wasabi, it loses its flavor in about 15 minutes.
Of course, you can try putting it in the freezer right after grating it, as most Japanese restaurants do. But unfortunately, you won’t get the fresh taste of wasabi.
You may add lemon juice or vinegar to stabilize the combination if you grate too much, but it will probably not taste as good as freshly grated.
Nevertheless, knowing this small trick is a fantastic method to tell if you’re served authentic wasabi at a restaurant.
On the other hand, horseradish won’t lose its flavor as quickly as wasabi; it can last for a few days after grating if put in the fridge. Even longer if you put it into the freezer.
This is the reason why most people opt for horseradish rather than wasabi.
The situation is clear regarding the real wasabi vs. fake wasabi debate. Although both have similar hot, tangy flavors, it’s obvious which is real and which is fake wasabi.
Wasabi is traditionally served as a crushed paste made by grating the wasabi root. The conditions for a wasabi plant to grow must be ideal, making it extremely rare and costly.
Nevertheless, this traditional Japanese flavor is excellent even if you have to settle for fake wasabi to obtain a strong mustardy bite.
If you ever wondered what wasabi was, now you know!