Wasabi

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Whether you like wasabi or hate it, there is a very high probability that you have never actually tasted it. It is estimated that only about 5% of Japanese restaurants around the world actually offer the real stuff. Instead, the wasabi we most often indulge in is a mix of mustard, European horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), and green food coloring. This begs the question, why is real wasabi so hard to come by?

The answer to this lies in the plant. Real wasabi comes from a species of mustard native to the mountains of Japan. Flowering for this group consists of an inflorescence packed with small, white, 4-petaled flowers shoots up above the leaves. There exists two species within the genus - the uncultivated Wasabia tenuis and the cultivated Wasabia japonica. It has been suggested that these plants be moved out of the genus Wasabia and into the genus Eutrema. Regardless of their taxonomic affiliation, these are beautiful and interesting plants. 

Whereas W. tenuis tends to grow on mesic mountainsides, W. japonica prefers to grow in and around streams. In fact, it can often be found growing right out of the gravelly stream bed. Its strict riparian habit has made it hard for this plant to catch on commercially. Although it doesn't grow submerged like an aquatic plant, it nonetheless needs running water. Without it, the plant will languish and die. Although methods of soil growing W. japonica are sometimes used, these are very labor intensive and require a lot of inputs in order for the plants to thrive. The plant also seems to be highly susceptible to disease if planted in high densities. Overall this has made finding real wasabi a difficult, and not to mention expensive, venture. 

Photo Credit: Qwert1234 (Wikimedia Commons)

Further Reading: [1]