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Wasabi (Wasabia japonica (Miq.) Matsum.)


botanicalWasabia pungens, Eutrema wasabi, Cochlearia wasabi, Alliaria wasabi
BelarusianЯпонскі хрэн
Iaponski khren
BulgarianУасаби, Уосаби
Wasabi, Wosabi, Uasabi, Uosobi
CatalanRave japonès, Wasabi
山葵 [sāan kwai]
Saan kwai
山葵 [shān kuí]
Shan kui
CzechJaponský zelený křen, Wasabi
DanishJapansk Peberrod
DutchBergstokroos, Japanse mierikswortel
EnglishJapanese horseradish
EsperantoJapana kreno, Vasabio
FrenchRaifort du Japon
GermanBergstockrose, Japanischer Kren
HungarianJapán torma, Vaszabi, Zöldtorma
Japanese山葵, ,
わさび, なみだ
ワサビ, ナミダ
Wasabi, Namida
Korean고추냉이, 겨자냉이, 와사비, 산규
Kochu-naengi, Gochu-naengi, Gyeoja-naengi, Kyoja-naengi, Wasabi; San’gyu (Wasabia japonica var koreana)
LithuanianJaponinis pipirkrienis, Vasabis
RomanianRidiche japoneză
RussianВасаби, Японский хрен
Vasabi, Yaponskij khren
SlovakJaponský chren
SwedishJapansk pepparrot
Wasabia japonica: Wasabi root
Wasabi rhizome (imitation)

Photo: Wolfgang Kehmeier

Used plant part

The so-called wasabi root is a rhizome, a vertical underground stem bearing the leaves. In Japan, it is preferred fresh, but outside of Japan, this spice is only available dried (pale green powder) or in form of a green paste. The most common Japanese cultivars are the dark green daruma wasabi [達磨山葵, だるまわさび] and the paler but hotter matsuma wasabi [真妻山葵, まつまわさび].

Many, if not most, of the brands of Wasabi powder and wasabi paste are actually fakes and consist mainly of coloured horseradish. When buying, remember that wasabi can never be cheap.

In Japan, fresh wasabi leaves are often used as an aromatic decoration.

Plant family

Brassicaceae (cabbage family).

Sensory quality

Strongly pungent and lachrymatory, like horseradish, but somewhat more pure and fresh. See negro pepper for more about pungent spices.
It should be noted that the pungent taste is not discernible in the dried root until it has been treated with water for a few minutes. If tried without previous contact with water, it tastes bitter (see also zedoary).

Main constituents

Like its relatives in the cabbage family, wasabi owes its pungency to isothiocyanates. Two glucosinolates have been identified in the root: Sinigrin (90%), which is also the characteristic aroma compound of black mustard and horseradish, and traces of glucocochlearin. These tasteless compounds are enzymatically hydrolyzed to the pungent mustard oils allyl isothiocyanate (CH2=CH–CH2–NCS) and sec-butyl isothiocyanate (CH3–CH2–CH(CH3)–NCS), respectively. Isothiocyanate total of fresh wasabi is around 0.2%.

Wasabia japonica: Wasabi flower
Wasabi flower

Further trace com­ponents identified in the volatile fraction are 6-methyl­thio­hexyl iso­thiocyanate, 7-methyl­thio­heptyl iso­thiocyanate and 8-methyl­thio­ocytl iso­thiocyanate. These compounds, ω-methyl­thio­alkyl iso­thiocyanates, are characteristic for wasabi and are often suspected to be responsible for the character­istic taste so much loved by Japanese connoisseurs. Short-chain homologues of these compounds appear, however, also in the Italian herb rocket.


Japan. The plant is very difficult to grow, as it does best in flowing water; roots grown traditionally on the banks of mountain streams (sawa wasabi [沢山葵, さわ山葵, さわわさび]) are considered better than those grown with modern hydroponic technology. More recently, wasabi cultivation has been tried in New Zealand and in the West of America to cater to the Japanese community.


In Chinese, wasabi is known as shan kui [山葵] (literally mountain sunflower). The name wasabi, which has entered most Western languages, is Japanese. In Japan, wasabi was originally written in Kanji as 和佐比 which would be read wasahi in modern language; but this notation is no longer used. Instead, the plant’s name is usually written in Hiragana [わさび] or sometimes in Katakana [ワサビ]. The modern Japanese Kanji writing [山葵] parallels the Chinese, but is uncommon due to its irregularity: The single kanji mean yama [] mountain and aoi [] holly­hock. The plant name holly­hock refers to Althea rosea, an ornamental closely related to marshmallow, but unrelated to wasabi. Note that although the name is written yama aoi, it is always spoken wasabi. See Sichuan pepper for a more detailed explanation of Kanji readings.

Wasabia japonica: Wasabi roots
A basket of wasabi roots.

Nevertheless, there are some European names for wasabi that translate the Kanji literally as mountain holly­hock, e. g., Dutch berg­stokroos or German Berg­stockrose. The equivalent English name, mountain holly­hock, more often refers to a true relative of holly­hock, Iliamna rivularis (Malvaceae/Malvales/Dilleniidae), than to wasabi.

Many Western languages have borrowed the Japanese name to denote wasabi, sometimes adjusting the word to their own sound system. Some languages use descriptive compounds that name wasabi as a variant of the better-known horseradish, e. g., French raifort du Japon, Dutch Japanse mierikswortel, Russian Yaponskij khren [Японский хрен] and Finnish japaninpiparjuuri, all of which mean Japanese horseradish. Another interpretation of wasabi’s nature is reflected by the Hungarian name zöldtorma green horseradish.

Japanese namida [, , なみだ] means tear in everyday speech; if spoken in a sushi bar, however, it will be interpreted by the sushi cook as a wish for an extra-large amount of the lachrymatory wasabi.

Selected Links

Sorting Wasabia names ( Wasabi information ( Pacific Farms: About Wasabi Urban Agriculture Notes: Wasabi Pacific Coast Wasabi Ltd: Wasabi – The Background Story New Zealand Wasabi Ltd: Meet Wasabi Wasabi – The Best Accompanist of Sushi Sushi Vocabulary ( Sushi History ( Making Sushi – a Complete Guide Wasabi by Elisabeth Andoh (

Wasabia japonica: Wasabi plants
Wasabi plants in cultivation

Wasabi is a spice known ex­clusively in Japan; it is mostly served to dishes con­taining dif­ferent kinds of raw fish, which are so popular in Japan and rapidly winning friends also in the West. Some­times, wasabi paste is mixed with soy sauce (wasabi-jōyu [山葵醤油, わさび醤油, わさびじょうゆ]) yielding a table condiment popular for grilled steaks and going well with tempura, Japanese (but Portuguese-influenced) deep-fried battered vegetables or sea foods (see perilla).
Wasabia japonica: Shark skin grater 鮫皮のワサビおろし
Wasabi grater made from shark skin (samezaya-oroshi [鮫皮おろし])

Photo: Wolfgang Kehmeier

Wasabia japonica: Shark skin grater 鮫皮のワサビおろし
Close-up to the wasabi grater

Photo: Wolfgang Kehmeier

Wasabi paste is made by grating fresh wasabi root on a grater to a very fine texture; most conservative cooks will use graters made from shark skin (samezayano-wasabi-oroshi [鮫皮のワサビおろし]), yet metal graters are also in use. Since wasabi roots are difficult to come by outside of Japan (and would be even more difficult to pay for if one by chance stumbles over them), Western sushi bars will typically use prepared wasabi paste sold in tubes or dried wasabi as a powder; both, and particularly the latter, are often not true wasabi (hon-wasabi [本山葵, 本わさび, ほんわさび]), but rather imitations made from horseradish or mustard powder with chlorophyll as an vegetable green pigment. Needless to say, Japanese connoiseurs would rate such surrogates as a far, far inferior material.

The cuisine of Japan cannot be imagined with ingredients anything less than most fresh. This is easy to understand in the case of raw fish, which changes its taste rapidly and can host dangerous bacteria very quickly. In Japan, fish must be fresh enough to not develop any fishy odour. On the other side, Japanese cooks put much less emphasis on spices and flavouring; it is seen more desirable to let the ingredients’ flavour stand for itself. The pure and clean pungency of wasabi fits very well to this somewhat Spartan concept of tastes.

Even in Europe, the Japanese are well-known for their affection to raw fish, but love to this exotic foodstuff is not restricted to Japan at all (see lime about Mexican ceviche). In Japan, the simplest form of raw fish is called sashimi [刺身, さしみ] and consists simply of absolutely fresh fish in thin slices which are dipped into soy sauce and wasabi paste. More known in the West is sushi, which very often, but by no means necessarily, contains raw fish.

Basically, sushi (properly spelled zushi in compounds) [, 寿司, すし, スシ] is short grain rice cooked with sugar and vinegar (and thus tasting slightly sweet–sour). After cooling, the rice is brought to a flat, plain shape and topped with some flavourful food (nigiri-sushi, nigiri-zushi [握り寿司, 握り鮨, 握鮨, 握りずし, にぎりずし]). As an alternative, the sushi may be placed on dried seaweed (nori [海苔, のり]) and then rolled up; thus, the cylindric rice bits famous in the West are obtained (maki sushi, maki zushi [巻鮨, 巻寿司, まきずし]. A variant of this design is the so-called inside-out, where the rice is outside of the nori leaf. Some maki types may be seasoned with sesame oil for extra flavour; toasted sesame seeds are a common coating for the rice surface of the inside-out maki.

Wasabia japonica: Wasabi plant
Wasabi plant

The most com­mon variants of sushi contain raw fish or raw sea foods, e. g., salmon (sake [, さけ, しゃけ]), tuna (tekka [鉄火, てっか] or maguro [, まぐろ]), shrimp (ebi [, , 海老, えび]) or squid (ika [烏賊, 墨魚, いか]), but there are also sushi types without fish: Scrambled egg (tamago [, 玉子, たまご] egg), fresh carrot or cucumber (kappa [かっぱ]), and pickled vegetables, predominantly radish (oshinko [お新香, 御新香, おしんこ]). Sushi employing fried or boiled (or even raw) meat is less common, but not unheard of. Sushi is commonly served with soy sauce, wasabi paste and pickled ginger gari [がり, ガリ], which are thin slices of young ginger in a sweet–sour brine. Gari usually has pale pink colour (although there are also colourless variants); this color develops during pickling without addition of any colouring agents. Fragrant herbs like perilla, water pepper or young leaves of Sichuan pepper (kinome) are also possible decorations for sushi.

Since sushi is so popular in Western countries, new variants are being created every day, some of which use ingredients which are not at all typical for Japan (avocado, cheese, tomatoes with basil). Indeed, sushi is as versatile as the Western concept of sandwich and it can be seen as a special Japanese version of sandwich that substitutes bread by another processed cereal, boiled rice. From that analogy it becomes more understandable that almost everything that can appear on top of a slice of bread has also been tried to make into a sushi — often (though certainly not always) with amazing success.

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