#15 Where Words Take Us – Wasabi

Wasabi Facts

Wasabi plants in flower
Wasabi plants in flower – Encyclopædia Britannica
Image by: Encyclopædia Britannica

Eutrema Japonicum is a semi-aquatic plant with a thick stem, rounded leaves and white flowers, of which all parts are edible. As a potent antioxidant with strong antibacterial properties, it has been part of Japanese life since ancient times

Today, you can buy wasabi as a paste or powder but be warned: Real wasabi is costly, and the flavour starts deteriorating to almost nothing within half an hour after pasting it. At most, you’ll buy a mixture of mustard, horseradish, and other things with a small percentage of real wasabi, or maybe none at all.

Sushi fans know wasabi as the blob of green paste accompanying the carefully crafted squares and rounds the Japanese-clad waitron comes to present to you – ever so slightly more dignified than any other waitron could ever be. 

The other day, doing a write-up for Delilah Nosworthy’s article on matcha tea, I promised the story of my first wasabi encounter, and here it is. 

The most difficult plant to grow commercially

Wasabi Fun

About fifteen years ago, just after we arrived in a brand-new country, one of our staff members told us we should try the sushi place downstairs. ‘The best in the city’, he said.

We knew nothing about sushi except that it was raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed (yuck!), but the impetuous excitement of a new adventure propelled us down the stairs to our very first lunch out.

The stately entrance should have warned us, but we became blind to visual clues. Only when an almost empty restaurant stretched before us in starched white linen and dinner napkins did we stop dead in our tracks. The waitron came towards us with a smile as bright as the Polish cut glass on the tables, and it was too late to leg it.  

Our eyes glazed over at the avalanche of sounds tumbling from his mouth, and he immediately realised – with a painfully visible eye-roll – that we were foreigners. He brought us the Polish menu anyway. English menus didn’t exist in 2006.

The only things we could read were numbers. And prices. And fine dining with South African Rands and two weeks to go before the first salary made my stomach churn. But there we were: in a Slavic country, ordering Japanese food we didn’t know, from a menu we couldn’t read, and for which we’d have to pay with money we didn’t have. Utterly lost and illiterate!

Sushi Plate with Chopsticks
Sushi Plate with Chopsticks
Image by: Cath Smith

‘Two minutes, please?’ I begged. The waitron sighed and went back to the reception desk, whispering to his colleagues. They giggled. So, he did understand at least a bit of English, after all. What a weasel!

Well, I decided, I know how menus work; they must be the same the world over. There was a heading around the middle of the list – probably main courses. There were 8 of something at a price I wouldn’t dare mention, then 6 of the same and 8 of something else – equally unaffordable. 

But at the top of the menu, my eye caught Przystawki, where there were 3 somethings and 2 somethings for about a third of the price. We’d still have to eat that horribly sour bread for the rest of the month, though. I pointed to the three somethings, looked at the waitron, and held up two fingers. ‘Two, please.’

On our tiny plates arrived two rounds and a square each, a few trimmings and a beautiful green little blob of avocado. Mmm. All my iffiness about the sushi vanished like mist in the morning sun. There was something familiar in front of me. I spread about a third of the avocado in a thick smear onto my square and took a hearty bite. There was a tingle on my tongue and up my nose. Watery mascara started streaking down my cheeks. The tingle turned to fire, and then overpowering nausea.

It was our last time in a sushi restaurant. Ever. If you go and have sushi for the first time, and you see the green blob. It’s not avocado! They tell me if you spread it so thin that you can barely see it, the tingle turns into a sweet after taste.

*With thanks to Ulrike Ascher and Carole Craig for their well-considered editorial comments and savage cuts.

*With thanks to Руслан Хмелевский the feature photograph.

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11 Responses

  1. Very entertaining and informative, thanks Helene. I didn’t even realise that wasabi was a plant/vegetable in and of itself. I thought the green paste was made from horseradish and mustard 😁 My first encounter was similar to yours – a friend offered me a teaspoon full of the “green stuff” to taste. Fortunately, I didn’t trust him much so simply dipped my pinky into it – what a relief it was not to eat the entire teaspoon. Loved this article 👍🏻

  2. Such a delightful article! I loved reading about your experience with wasabi. My first encounter with wasabi was a much better one, thanks to TV and Fran Fine from ‘The Nanny’. The scene where Fran has her first taste of wasabi is imprinted in my brain. So when I was presented with sushi and wasabi at a work lunch, I was very cautious. I can’t even imagine what a whole dollop of it in your mouth must do.

  3. Not quite nostalgia, Helene, but I recall a similar confusing experience the first time I ate wasabi. That rush of tears once I had swallowed, is immediate in my memory.
    Thanks for an informative post.

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