Yeah, I know, wrong culture. But a wasabi taste-test is just what the day needs, in the face of all that corned beef and cabbage. Not that I have anything against Irish food. Or even Irish-American food. I did my corned beef and cabbage, my colcannon, even my “Irish Reuben” (corned beef grilled on rye with Swiss and buttermilk coleslaw at McMenamin’s North Bank) already. So now it’s about working off my beef to the heels, and the best way to do that is with Japanese food.
So. You’ve always wondered if there are any differences in supermarket wasabi, you say? You are a much more savvy shopper than me. Sure, I knew that there was a difference between freshly grated wasabi, which I’ve eaten at nice sushi restaurants a few times, and the powdered stuff. I don’t eat the tubed stuff, so I can’t comment on that. Then I happened upon a description of the ingredients of the cheapest line of powdered wasabi in my Penzey’s spice catalog: horseradish, mustard, wasabi and tapioca starch. Tapioca starch? I noticed, too, that Penzey’s offered three “levels” of wasabi, with increasing natural-ness: chump wasabi, the cheapest, a blend with “pure Wasabi powder” and the same fillers as above, and the 100% wasabi stuff.
Clearly, this matter needed more investigating.
In a serious lapse of judgment a few weeks ago, we ran out of wasabi and I sent Retrogrouch off for an emergency run to the store. He ran to Market of Choice, which only stocks White People Wasabi in a fancy jar. How different could it be? Quite. I mixed it up, and it turned a foul dark olive green. It was made of 100% wasabi, which is unusual, so I thought the color reflected the lack of dye. So we tasted it and deemed it unsuitable, shoved it on a back shelf, and bought new powdered stuff from the Asian market for our next sushi round.
The list of ingredients in the Penzey’s catalog got me re-evaluatin’. We now had three kinds of powdered wasabi: Sushi Sonic (100% wasabi), Hime (available at Safeway, containing horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, corn flour, yellow no. 5 and blue no. 1) and Kaneku (available at our local Asian grocery store, Sunrise, containing horseradish, red pepper, ascorbic acid (as preservative), citric acid, blue no. 1 and yellow no. 5). Each of these had ingredients different enough to raise some questions. I assume that the “horseradish” in Hime and Kaneku is mis-translated wasabi, but who knows? It is notable that Kaneku has added acids, which could change the flavor, and red pepper. Hime, on the other hand, seems to contain too many corn products for my taste. All cost about the same, with Sushi Sonic just a shade more expensive.
I decided to do a taste test, putting each wasabi through a grueling run of three applications. First, tasting plain. Next, tasting on rice, smeared on the inside of a spicy tuna roll. Third, mixed in soy sauce as a dipping sauce for a sushi roll. Here are the results.
Sushi Sonic: awful dark olive color, chalky consistency. Pond algae, with overtones of seaweed with a slight wasabi kick. Fail.
Hime: brightest light green of the lot. Classic “wasabi” green. Taste was gritty, though, and much, much stronger than the Sushi Sonic.
Kaneku: pale light green. Slightly sweet. Smooth texture, a thousand times stronger than Hime. The red pepper actually does add punchitude. Can I taste the citric acid, too? Beware.
In Sushi Roll
Sushi Sonic: can’t taste it. Should have used more. Would that have meant more algae taste, though?
Hime: could taste the punch and the grittiness disappeared in the filling. Perfectly acceptable.
Kaneku: oh sweet mother of god. Too much. Cleared sinuses. Beware.
In Soy Sauce
Sushi Sonic: this makes a lovely addition to soy sauce! It was by far my favorite of the three, subtle and delicious. It actually enhanced the taste of the soy, not just made it spicy.
Hime/Kaneku: indistinguishable, added punch to soy sauce. Acceptable.
So, surprising results. I’d not suggest that you keep Sushi Sonic on hand for just adding to soy sauce, but it was nice to know it won’t go to waste. If I had a choice between Hime and Kaneku, I’d choose Kaneku, and tread lightly. I don’t like the preservatives in Kaneku, but since we use so little of the stuff in one sitting, it doesn’t matter that much to me.
I haven’t tried Penzey’s yet, but it will be interesting to see if the tapioca makes a less gritty filler than the cornstarch used by Hime, and if the lack of artificial colors/preservatives makes a difference. I’m guessing it might very well indeed. It’s worth noting that Penzey’s cheapest wasabi is a bit less expensive than Kaneku (K=$2.39 for an ounce and P-$1.99 for .9 oz.), but the price increases rapidly, at $3.59 for .9 oz. of the mid-level wasabi, and a whopping $13.59 for a .7 oz. jar of pure wasabi powder. But if it doesn’t taste like slime, it might be worth the cost for some.