What is the difference between Wasabi and Wasabia japonica?
In most peoples minds these words are interchangeable.
But, the reality is totally different. It is like comparing chalk to cheese.
The words are similar and yet that is where the similarity ends.
Wasabi is the word used to describe the pungent green paste that really clears out your sinuses when you eat a lot of it in one go. Have a look on U-Tube and other websites to see the stupidity that some people inflict on themselves and others relating to the consumption of wasabi.
Wasabia japonica is a plant that can be grown in water or in the soil, is green in colour, is shaped like a knobbly carrot and grows on top of the ground.
So, I ask myself why is that people seem to think they are interchangeable?
After all, even the Scientists who carry out research and publish “learned” papers on Wasabia japonica have difficulty in using the correct word/phrase when dealing with either item (green paste or plant) when writing their “learned” paper!
How does this confusion come about?
After all the word “Wasabi” is now part and parcel of everyday language irrespective of what language or dialect you may speak. Who doesn’t know about “Wasabi Peas” for instance?
The fact is that the word Wasabi has now entered the normal vocabulary of entire nations, and the populations understanding of that word is that it is a food condiment, usually used with Japanese food, but now being used as a spice in almost everything.
The acceptance of Wasabi is similar to the way that Pork was introduced to the English by William the Conqueror back in the 11th Century. As they were French speaking nobles, they used the word “Porc”, which is French for pig to describe some cooked meat dishes. The servants picked this up and started referring to cooked pig as Pork. From these small beginnings pork entered the English language.
A similar thing has happened with Wasabi. Instead of the word coming from the French, this time it came from the Japanese via the Allied soldiers going home after World War II. However, in my view this was not an unintentional language mis-translation, but a deliberate mis-direction, as the plant Wasabia japonica was (is) regarded as a national treasure in Japan and needs to be protected.
Wasabi has been shortened from seiyō wasabi which means Western Wasabi. This is the powder that the Allies brought back from Japan after the war as the new spice they had discovered overseas. The real Wasabia japonica was hidden away in the mountains, far from the eyes of the foreigners.
The seiyō wasabi was (is) exactly what it says. It is dried western horseradish (Armonicia rusticana) that was mixed with dried seaweed to change the colour and make it look different to plain dried horseradish powder.
These days Wasabi powder is still made from Armonicia rusticana, and now it is still likely not to contain any Wasabia japonica but may contain mustard powder, corn starch, various colours and other flavours – such as chilli.
From the man in the streets point of view, it doesn’t matter what it is made from. So long as it has the accepted taste and action of Wasabi, namely the nose tingling rush and eye watering ability, then it is regarded as Wasabi no matter what the ingredients are.
Now this is where the Wasabia japonica differs.
Wasabia japonica is a plant that has a large number of species that are grown in a number of places throughout the world.
Each species has a different chemical makeup, although a definitive series of scientific studies have never been undertaken to determine what (if any) these differences might be. From a purely subjective taste test, my experience is that the tastes and eye watering abilities are significantly different.
A number of scientific papers claim that the Wasabia japonica plant always contains three unique Isothiocyanate compounds. These compounds are listed as;
7-methylthioheptyl isothiocyanate, and
Once again there has not been any definitive studies to show that this is the case for each species within the Wasabia japonica group of plants.
Also there is another scientific paper which scientists claim shows that there is NO 2-phenylethyl Isothiocyanates to be found in Wasabia japonica and yet is present in European Horseradish. If these scientists chose to read the actual paper, what is says is “Not detected”. This is totally different to NOT being there.
A final point to mention is that all the scientific papers about Wasabia japonica have been carried out on fresh Wasabia japonica and on one species (or very few) only.
Once you turn it into powder then everything changes. The concentration of all the chemicals increase (naturally), and then the “Not detected” chemicals might be detectable. Also the action of turning the Wasabia japonica plant into a concentrated powder may make other chemicals not detectable. The variability due to species type, growing method, growing area(s), and the environmental conditions together with processing methods and the lack of organised scientific research into Wasabia japonica ensure that scientists are still working in the dark, and their conclusions need to be taken with a great deal of suspision.
What does this mean?
It means that we cannot rely on the scientists with their fancy equipment and reports to definitively state if Wasabi powder actually contains Wasabia japonica or not.
The only people who know if a certain Wasabi powder contains Wasabia japonica or not are the growers and processors who actually make the product.
In the end, it comes down to the end user being satisfied with the product they are using and does it suit their purpose.