Wasabi Vs Horse­rad­ish

Taste & Travel - - Contents - by SU­SAN HAL­LETT

SU­SAN HAL­LETT pro­files two spicy roots.

WASABI is all the rage in North Amer­ica but very few peo­ple have tasted the real thing. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle by Ali­son Spiegel in The Huffington Post (Oct. 23, 2015) “...most of the wasabi served out­side of Ja­pan is a mix­ture of horse­rad­ish, mus­tard and food color­ing.” The tube la­belled “Wasabi” I saw at a Sobeys in Ot­tawa was ex­actly that.

The part of wasabi used, which grows un­der­ground, is not a root or a rhi­zome, but a stem. It must be peeled and freshly grated be­fore use be­cause its pun­gent flavour does not last for more than 15 min­utes or so, es­pe­cially if left un­cov­ered. It is also sold as a dried pow­der and, of course, in the tube most of us know in North Amer­ica, as a paste. La­bel read­ing is a must if you would like to taste the real thing. Even in Ja­pan, the de­mand for wasabi is so great that what you will usu­ally find is a horse­rad­ish mix­ture.

Wasabi or Wasabia japon­ica, which is na­tive to Ja­pan, has been writ­ten about in Ja­panese botan­i­cal books and dic­tio­nar­ies since 794 CE. It is now grown in China, Tai­wan, New Zealand, Aus­tralia and North Amer­ica. Dif­fi­cult to cul­ti­vate, it grows, mostly sub­merged, nat­u­rally along streambeds, es­pe­cially in Nara Pre­fec­ture in the Kan­sai re­gion in the south of Hon­shu, Ja­pan’s main is­land. Wasabi leaves may be eaten in sal­ads, adding a spicy taste to other greens.

Wasabi is in the Bras­si­ac­cae fam­ily, as are horse­rad­ish, broc­coli, and cab­bage, but wasabi be­longs to the E. japon­icum species, whereas horse­rad­ish, ( raifort in French) which is a peren­nial herb, be­longs to the Ar­mora­cia species, a name used by Pliny the Elder (the Ro­man au­thor, nat­u­ral­ist and nat­u­ral philoso­pher) who rec­om­mended this plant for its medic­i­nal prop­er­ties.

In North Amer­ica, true wasabi is usu­ally only avail­able in high-end restau­rants and spe­cialty stores; in Ja­pan, horse­rad­ish is of­ten called “Western Wasabi.” The com­mon name, horse­rad­ish, rather than Pliny’s name, Ar­mora­cia, means a pun­gent or strong-tast­ing radish, with the pre­fix “horse” used to de­note a large, coarse plant.

The fresh root of horse­rad­ish, peeled and grated, is used for both culi­nary and medic­i­nal pur­poses. It is said to stim­u­late di­ges­tion, as well as hav­ing di­uretic, an­ti­sep­tic, rube­fa­cient, mild lax­a­tive and ex­pec­to­rant ac­tions. It is used in some pro­pri­etary medicines to treat in­fluenza and in­fec­tions of the uri­nary tract. Old-timers know that rheumatic pain can be re­lieved by ap­ply­ing a horse­rad­ish poul­tice made from the grated root, but it must not be left on too long as the skin may be­come ir­ri­tated.

Horse­rad­ish orig­i­nated in south-east­ern Europe and in western Asia. It was in­tro­duced to other Euro­pean coun­tries in me­dieval times, where it has long been cul­ti­vated. It is so pop­u­lar that it has been nat­u­ral­ized and grows in many gar­dens in prac­ti­cally all parts of North Amer­ica, in­clud­ing On­tario where my for­mer hus­band, a Czech writer, grew it to grate and mix with mus­tard and olive oil. He liked the sharp and pi­quant taste and strong smell and served it as a condi­ment with roast beef or veni­son. In Rus­sia, horse­rad­ish is used to flavour vodka.

The thick root­stalk and long, fleshy cylin­dri­cal roots of the horse­rad­ish plant lead to an erect, branched stem. The lively sharp­ness of the freshly grated root is caused by the volatile oil which re­sem­bles mus­tard oil. There are large leaves, not ed­i­ble and lit­tle white flow­ers ar­ranged in a com­pound ter­mi­nal pan­i­cle. This plant ac­tu­ally grows like a weed and must of­ten be torn out. If you give root cut­tings to friends, pro­vid­ing they have light, well-drained soil, the plant will pro­duce fresh roots to har­vest in the fall or the fol­low­ing spring.

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