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Intensity of wasabi at home


Most people know wasabi as a sinus-clearing accompaniment to sushi and sashimi.

New York Times
Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2004 at 6:27 p.m.

When sushi and sashimi caught the attention of the American diner sometime in the late 1970s, at least part of the appeal was the little green nub that appeared on every plate, the wasabi, that essential condiment without which many people would not consider eating raw fish.

Facts

USES FOR WASABI

- Stir a teaspoon of fresh wasabi paste into a Bloody Mary made with tomato juice (not Bloody Mary mix).

- Stir a teaspoon into a martini before shaking it; strain into a chilled glass.

- Combine 2 tablespoons fresh wasabi paste with 1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream; season to taste with kosher salt. If the sauce seems a little thick, thin with half-and-half. Use as a sauce with grilled salmon, seared sea scallops, prime rib, leg of lamb or grilled asparagus.

- Serve fresh wasabi paste as a condiment with Asian noodle dishes for a refreshing and lively, if nontraditional, burst of flavor.

We mixed the wasabi with soy sauce, dipped our fish or sticky rice into it, popped the morsel into our mouths and waited, hoping for that intense vaporization in the sinuses that proved both compelling and elusive.

Sometimes, the tiniest amount would trigger the response; sometimes slathering on greater and greater amounts resulted only in bitterness and an unpleasant burning on the tongue.

I recall many evenings of wasabi competition. Who could handle the most? Who could have the most intense experience, that aromatic swoon that subsides only in the desire for more. Was there a limit? Waitresses would bring little plates with increasingly larger nuggets of the paste and scurry away, shaking their heads. Ahh, the enthusiasm of the innocent.

There are two things most of us who were discovering sushi for the first time did not realize back then. First, when it comes to wasabi, there is no exponential increase in relationship to quantity; less is often more. A lot of wasabi does not result in a stronger experience in the sinuses.

What is more interesting is that the green paste that accompanies most sushi is not true wasabi. It is a mixture of ground horseradish, mustard flour and food coloring.

True wasabi, made from the rhizome of wasabia Japonica, has a lighter texture, a sweet earthy flavor, and what you might call a more sophisticated quality of aromatic heat. Wasabia Japonica is a member of the cruciferae family and thus a cousin of cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and mustard.

For years, organizations such as the American Cancer Society have suggested that the isothiocynates in cruciferous vegetables lower the risk of all types of cancer. Wasabi also contains calcium, Vitamin C and potassium, though it is a condiment, which means we don't eat it in quantities large enough to provide significant amounts of these nutrients. It has been shown, however, to be an effective antimicrobial agent, which suggests why it might have become a popular accompaniment to raw fish.

The best wasabi is grown in cool mountain streams in Japan; wasabi that is grown in fields is considered inferior in both appearance and taste. The plant needs cool temperatures and a constant wash of fresh water to reach its full potential.

Nina Simonds is one of my favorite food writers; this recipe is from her book Asian Noodles (Hearst Books, $21). What I particularly appreciate about this recipe is its utter simplicity.

NINA SIMONDS' COLD SOBA NOODLES

3 tablespoons fresh wasabi paste or 2 tablespoons wasabi powder

3 scallions, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds

2 cups Japanese Broth (recipe follows)

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons mirin (rice wine)

3/4 pound soba, cooked until just tender, rinsed, drained and chilled

If using fresh wasabi, divide it among six tiny serving plates and scatter scallions on top. If using wasabi powder, mix it with 3 1/2 tablespoons water to form a paste, set aside for 15 minutes and then divide among tiny serving plates and top with scallions.

In a medium bowl, combine the broth, soy sauce and mirin. Drizzle about a quarter cup of the mixture over the noodles and toss gently. Divide the noodles among individual serving bowls and serve immediately, with the condiments alongside.

To eat the noodles, mix a little of the wasabi and scallions into the sauce and dip a mouthful of the noodles into the sauce.

Variations: Add cooked and julienned chicken, flaked cooked salmon, chopped seared tuna or julienned radishes to the noodles before tossing with the sauce.

Makes 6 servings.

JAPANESE BROTH (DASHI)

1 4-inch square giant kelp (donbu), wiped with a damp cloth

4 cups cold water

2/3 cup dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)

Put the kelp and water into a large pot and bring it to a boil over high heat. Using tongs, immediately remove the kelp from the pot; let it dry and reserve it to use again.

Add the bonito flakes, stir and remove from the heat. Let the flakes settle to the bottom of the pot (it will take about a minute) and then strain through a fine sieve. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to a week.

If you have very fresh (just picked) asparagus, you can cut it into thin diagonal slices and serve it as a salad, raw, with this dressing.

Makes 4 cups.

ASPARAGUS WITH WASABI DRESSING

20 fat asparagus spears, tough ends broken off and discarded

Mild olive oil

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh wasabi paste

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon soy sauce, plus more to taste

Black pepper in a mill

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees and put the asparagus on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a very small amount of olive oil, toss to coat thoroughly and season with salt.

Bake until the spears are tender, about 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the wasabi, egg yolk and soy sauce in a small bowl and mix until smooth and creamy.

To serve, divide the asparagus among individual serving plates and drizzle a little sauce over each portion.

Season with pepper and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

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