The little ball of neon-green stuff -- it has the consistency of Play-Doh -- perched on the edge of your platter of sushi rolls is wasabi, right? In most area sushi restaurants, the condiment called wasabi is almost always an imitation version, made from mixing water with a powdered "wasabi" that's concocted, typically, from horseradish, mustard, tapioca starch and green food coloring (or dried spinach powder). There might be a small -- very small -- amount of actual dried wasabi root in the powder, too, although it's an expensive ingredient.
The actual fresh root from the wasabia japionica plant is a
costly import. The plant is grown in Japan (and, closer to home,
cultivated at the Real Wasabi Farm in North Carolina) and costs from
$55 to $80 a pound. No wonder restaurateurs prefer buying the faux wasabi powder, which can sell for less than $20 a pound.
I called five different sushi restaurants from different areas of the metro and couldn't find one that uses real grated wasabi root as a condiment for its sushi. The only restaurant in the metro that I knew served the real thing was Nara; this Crossroads sushi bar and robata grill has offered real wasabi since it opened in 2006.
The secret to creating the perfect real wasabi paste, says Nara's sushi chef Koji Sakata, is the fresh root grated on a piece of sharkskin. Nara charges $3 for the definitive wasabi paste that, Sakata says, is a bargain, considering that it's far more labor-intense than the version made with green horseradish powder and water. Nara does serve the fake wasabi, by the way. There's no extra charge for it or the other sushi accoutrements such as pickled ginger and soy sauce.
The real wasabi is darker and more coarse than the powder-made paste and isn't nearly so astringent and head-searing. In fact, although the real wasabi packs a momentary stinging punch, it's a pleasurable knock. The powdered wasabi paste is all about shock effect and actually overwhelms the subtlety of some of Sakata's sushi and sashimi creations.
"Real wasabi is more about nuance, warmth and flavor," Sakata says. "It's not just spicy."
Nara also offers another fresh, premium variation on wasabi: kizami wasabi, grated fresh wasabi root steeped in soy sauce.
"It's a different flavor but delicious," Sakata says.