What's Really in Wasabi?

You might not know exactly what it is, but no sushi platter would be complete without a dollop of pungent green wasabi.

As with 99% of the wasabi served in the United States, the green condiment here is actually a mixture of horseradish, mustard powder, and food coloring.
As with 99% of the wasabi served in the United States, the green condiment here is actually a mixture of horseradish, mustard powder, and food coloring.

It’s the perfect food pairing. The potent aroma of the paste reduces the fishy smell of sushi, and compounds in wasabi may stop bacteria from growing and prevent food poisoning.

But here’s a little secret. About 99 percent of the wasabi served in U.S. restaurants isn’t really wasabi. It’s actually a mixture of horseradish, mustard powder, and food coloring. Real wasabi is very difficult to grow, even in its native Japan, and is much too expensive to be served as a free condiment.

Eye-watering facts about wasabi:

  • Real wasabi comes from Wasabia japonica, a member of the Brassicaceae flowering plant family, which also includes horseradish and mustard. Real wasabi is spicy, but not that hot. It has more of a plant taste and smell, aficionados say.

  • The perennial plant originated along mountain streams and rocky riverbeds in Japan. The earliest mention of wasabi can be found in an 18-volume medical dictionary written in 918 AD. It was said to have medicinal qualities.

  • Although it's still grown in Japan, there are several wasabi farms in places like New Zealand, North America, and the United Kingdom. Most restaurants in Japan serve the wasabi substitute, not the real thing.

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