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What is Japanese Horseradish?

By Celeste Heiter
Updated May 16, 2024
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Japanese horseradish is a root vegetable that is widely used in Japanese cuisine. Known as “wasabi” in Japanese, the plant belongs to the botanical family Wasabia japonica. Japanese horseradish is available as a fresh root or as a commercially packaged paste or powder. It is most often used as a condiment for sushi.

The flavor of Japanese horseradish is peppery and more closely resembles hot mustard than chili peppers. It is also lachrymatory, which means that it induces tears. “Namida,” the Japanese word for “tears,” is used in association with wasabi on product labels or as a request for a sushi chef to use extra wasabi.

Wasabia japonica, the plant that produces Japanese horseradish, is generally difficult to cultivate. The edible root is a rhizome that thrives in flowing water. In its natural habitat, it grows near mountain streams, and for commercial production, it is grown hydroponically. Japanese horseradish is botanically related to cabbage and mustard, and its leaves are also edible.

Outside Japan, Wasabia japonica is cultivated in China, North America, and New Zealand. The most commonly cultivated varieties are daruma wasabi and matsuma wasabi. Matsuma wasabi is pale green and intensely peppery. The daruma variety is darker green and somewhat milder.

Fresh Japanese horseradish is available in some upscale grocery markets and health food stores. It is more commonly available in small tins in powdered form, or in tubes of wasabi paste. Many wasabi powders or pastes are made with ordinary horseradish root flavored with mustard and artificially colored, although some do contain a small percentage of real Japanese horseradish. A good indicator is the price, since genuine wasabi, whether fresh or packaged, is quite expensive.

To prepare fresh Japanese horseradish, the root is trimmed, peeled and finely grated. In Japan, utensils called “samezayano wasabi oroshi” are designed especially for this purpose. A fine metal grater may also be used. To prepare powdered wasabi, it must be mixed into a paste with a little water, which also brings out its peppery flavor.

In Japanese cuisine, a pinch of wasabi is usually served with sushi. It is believed to have anti-microbial effects that protect from the toxins in raw fish. The sushi chef rubs a dab of wasabi on sliced fish for nigiri sushi or on nori paper for makizushi rolls. It may also be mixed with soy sauce for dipping. In other foods, wasabi is used to flavor sauces, dressings, and crunchy snacks.

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Discussion Comments

By animegal — On Sep 26, 2011

@letshearit - I love wasabi peanuts, but like anything with Japanese horseradish on it, it is not for those with weak tastebuds. I found the brand I purchased seemed to have a light dusting of pure wasabi powder on them giving them quite the kick.

I am not sure which brand you are looking at, but you might want to shake the bag a bit and see if there is a powdery residue in the bag. The more wasabi powder, the hotter it is going to be.

I like the extra spice myself because it is good for your health. A lot of nasty bacteria have no interest in living in stomachs with a lot of spice around.

By letshearit — On Sep 25, 2011

Has anyone tried the wasabi coated peanuts?

I was recently in an Asian supermarket and spotted the wasabi coated peanuts in the snack isle. I am usually a fan of Japanese horseradish sauce, but I am not sure if I want my snack foods dipped in it or not.

I am thinking about buying the wasabi coated peanuts and trying them out on my next movie night in, but as they were a bit expensive, so I am curious how someone else liked them. Did you find them too strong, or was it more a hint of a wasabi taste?

By cloudel — On Sep 25, 2011

My cousin lives in the humid forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he helps out a farmer who grows and sells wasabia japonoica there. This shady, moist region is perfect for the plant, because it can’t handle direct sunlight.

They grow the plants in a small mountain stream. I got to visit the place, and it is beautiful. A large section of the stream is filled with the green plants, and all you can see is the heart-shaped leaves that resemble those of the violet.

My cousin told me that it can take three years for a plant to become mature enough to harvest. Some of the older ones have leaves as big as saucers.

By Perdido — On Sep 24, 2011

Even animals find Japanese horseradish hard to eat. My sister-in-law’s goat had an experience with it that was at once funny and sad.

She has one of those fainting goats that literally passes out when it gets excited or scared. Well, my husband, his sister, and I had gone out to a Japanese restaurant to eat, and he had brought home some leftovers. He decided to feed them to the goat.

It loved the teriyaki salmon, fried rice, and egg rolls. However, once it took a bite of Japanese horseradish, it began smacking its lips in a weird way. It got a scared look in its eyes, and it fell over. We thought it might have died for a moment, and we felt horribly guilty. It turns out it had just fainted from the excitement of eating something so spicy.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 23, 2011

@turkay1 - I also tried the green paste without knowing what it was, but I found out quickly! I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much water at once in my life!

You would think that restaurants should be required by law to warn people about wasabi. Someone with a weak heart might be in serious danger if they ate it. I’ve heard that spicy foods raise your blood pressure, and this is one of the spiciest I’ve ever tried.

By Oceana — On Sep 23, 2011

@turquoise - I have seen those wasabi nuts, but I have been afraid to try them. The package was transparent, and when I looked at what was inside, it appealed to me. Then, I saw the wasabi on the label.

All of my experiences with wasabi have been unpleasant. I’m not into super spicy foods, so I cannot tolerate it. It’s a shame those nuts were coated in wasabi, because they looked like they would be delicious otherwise!

By ceilingcat — On Sep 22, 2011

@starrynight - I'm not surprised to hear that you "love" wasabi. I've noticed that people tend to have pretty strong feelings about wasabi-they usually either love it or hate it.

I like it, myself. I especially like to eat sushi with wasabi when I'm sick. I find it clears my sinuses right out!

In fact, this reminds me of a hilarious episode of the Nanny that aired quite awhile ago. Fran and another one of the characters go to a sushi restaurant and she accidentally eats the whole chunk of wasabi. She had no idea what it was! After she gets over the initial spiciness, she notices that it's cleared out her nasal passages. Instead of her normal nasal voice, she sounds like a "regular" person. Hilarious!

By starrynight — On Sep 22, 2011

I personally love wasabi! It's funny because I'm not a big fan of other spicy foods, but it does make sense when you consider that the flavor is really closer to hot mustard than a chili pepper.

Whenever I eat sushi, I always put a little bit of wasabi on each roll before I bite into it. I read somewhere that you're actually not supposed to eat sushi that way, but that's the way I prefer it. I believe putting a chunk of wasabi in your soy sauce is actually the "acceptable" way to eat it.

By discographer — On Sep 22, 2011

I have a theory that Japanese horseradish is also great for clearing the palate. The times I've had raw seafood without Japanese horseradish, there is always a very strong fishy after-taste in my mouth that's annoying.

When I do have it with Japanese horseradish though, there is no after-taste. Japanese horseradish tastes spicy at first but really, that spicy taste goes away after a while. So I think that in addition to protecting our health from the dangers of raw fish, Japanese horseradish also makes raw fish easier to eat and with no fishy after-taste.

By turquoise — On Sep 21, 2011

@turkay1-- Sorry to hear about that! I know Japanese horseradish is really pungent and sometimes I get teary-eyed when I overdo it. But it's also really good with raw fish in my opinion.

Have you tried putting a tiny amount in soy sauce and dipping your sushi in it? This is actually how many Japanese eat Japanese horseradish. I think if you give it one more chance and try it this way, you'll enjoy it and change your mind.

I do love having some wasabi with my Japanese food. I also love those wasabi flavored snack foods. I used to only find them at Asian stores but now they're showing up everywhere. My favorite are the wasabi flavored snack peas and wasabi nuts.

By candyquilt — On Sep 20, 2011

I remember the first time I had Japanese horseradish. It was at a Sushi restaurant where we were celebrating a friend's birthday. My friends did not bother to tell me what the green paste on my plate was and I dipped my sushi roll in it and put a whole chunk of wasabi in my mouth.

In a few seconds, I tasted the strongest flavor I've ever had in my life. I couldn't swallow and my face turned completely red. I kept drinking water for the rest of the night and could not eat anything else.

It's definitely a memory I'll never forget. And this experience has been enough to keep me away from Japanese horseradish forever. When I buy sushi, the first thing I do is scoop out and throw out the wasabi.

If I had only tried a tiny amount the first time I had it, I'm sure I wouldn't be so scared of it now.

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