Wasabi Vs Horseradish
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.