- Japanese Horseradish
Wasabi (botanical name Wasabia japonica), also known as the Japanese horseradish, belongs to the Brassicaceae family. This botanical family also includes plants like horseradish, cabbages and mustard. While wasabi is also known as the Japanese horseradish, this plant does not belong to the plant species called horseradish. The wasabi root is often employed in the form of a flavouring agent and possesses a very potent essence. The hotness of this plant’s root is very much similar to the spiciness of the hot mustard compared to the capsaicin present in chili pepper, generating vapours that excite the nasal passages more compared to the tongue.
Wasabi, which was cultivated in Japan as early as the 10th century, is found growing naturally down the length of the stream beds in the mountainous river valleys in this island nation. Wasabi produces hermaphrodite (having organs of both sexes) flowers during the period between April and May.
Wasabi is an extremely useful plant and all parts of it are employed to support wellbeing as well as healthiness. The leaves and stems of this plant are pounded to prepare anti-bacterial medications that assist in treating problems related to the respiratory tract, such as cold, cough and sinus pressure. In addition, this herb is also employed to cure diarrhea, invigorate the appetite and get rid of the toxic and waste substances from the body. In effect, wasabi is a very familiar plant and is esteemed for its antioxidant properties. It also helps to promote the functioning of the digestive system. Wasabi may also be used to support the health and well-being on the whole and not simply to cure the symptoms of various ailments and diseases.
The most common medicinal use of Wasabi japonica is in the form of medications to treat congested sinuses. As the smell of this herb is very potent, inhaling the fragrance just for some seconds helps to clear the nasal passages and enables the sufferer to breathe freely soon. However, here is a word of caution: inhaling wasabi in excess may result in a burning sensation as well as pain on the interior of the nasal cavity.
Even as the scientists have been continuing with their research to make it possible to utilize the health benefits offered by the chemicals present in wasabi, it is essential to note that all the uses of this herb have not been sanctioned for the common public. Of late, scientists have found that specific plants chemicals present in wasabi may be administered to patients for avoiding blood clot formation. What is all the more promising, it is believed that a number of plant materials can help to avoid the development of cancer cells present in the human stomach cell lining.
It may be noted that breathing in or snuffing wasabi vapour actually has an influence akin to that of smelling salts – an attribute that is taken advantage of by researchers who are endeavouring to generate a smoke distress for people with hearing impairment. According to the findings of a study, a deaf subject who participated in a test of the trial product woke up just 10 seconds after wasabi vapour being sprayed on him in the test sleeping chamber.
The root of Wasabia japonica is spicy as well as warming that helps in supporting digestion. The root is mainly used internally in the form of a remedy for fish poison. Perhaps, this denotes food poisoning owing to consumption of fish.
The Wasabia japonica plant is a member of the cruciferous family and, hence, it encloses the similar isothiocynates that are effective in combating cancer those are contained by cabbages and horseradish. It is worth mentioning here that for several years now, two prominent institutes – The American Cancer Society and the American National Cancer Institute – have both been researching the health benefits offered by vegetables belonging to the cruciferous family. These two institutes have suggested that all individuals should consume a number of servings belonging to this family of vegetables every week to significantly diminish the chances of developing every type of cancer. According to researchers, an important modus operandi of the chemicals present in cruciferous vegetables aids in averting development of cancer by facilitating the body to get rid of the surplus hormones, for instance, estrogen. Hence, they help in lowering the chances of developing cancers related to hormones like breast as well as prostate cancer.
Precisely speaking, all the health benefits offered by other vegetables belonging to the cruciferous family can be found accumulated in wasabi, which makes this particular vegetable an important herb that is effective in avoiding as well as combating various types of cancers. In effect, all such cruciferous vegetables are bequeathed with compounds that provide health, contain sulfur, such as sulforaphane and isothiocyanates among several others that have been found to be contained by this family of vegetables till now.
It has been already discovered in laboratory tests that Wasabia japonica also contains substances that help to avoid tooth from decaying. The isothiocyanates present in wasabi are said to possess anti-bacterial and antiseptic attributes. In addition, it has also been found in test-tube experiments that Wasabia japonica plants slow down the development of Streptococcus mutans – the bacteria that is responsible for dental caries. Of the 12 isothiocyanates, one that has been isolated by the researchers has shown that it is effective in slowing down the enzyme glucosyltransferase (GTF) – an enzyme that facilitates the transformation of sucrose into glucan, which helps Streptococcus mutans to grow plaque on teeth. In effect, Streptococcus mutans form lactic acid on plaque, which, in turn, starts the decaying of teeth.
The root of Wasabia japonica is a good substitute for horseradish. In Japan, people grate the plump rhizomes of the plant to prepare a delicious fresh green paste for use as a flavouring agent. It is a very popular culinary item in Japan. In effect, this green paste possesses an individual essence as well as spiciness that is believed to be much better compared to horseradish (botanical name Armoracia rusticana) itself. However, the strong flavour depreciates rapidly when the root has been sliced or cut.
It is perfect to use the roots of plants that are about 15 to 24 months old. The leaves, petioles as well as the flowers of wasabi are consumed after cooking. A very well-accepted Japanese pickle known as ‘wasabi-zuke’ is prepared by soaking the flowers, leaves, petioles and freshly obtained rhizome of Wasabia japonica in saline water and, subsequently, mixed with saki lees.
Wasabia japonica is popular owing to the plant’s strong flavour as well as spiciness when employed in the form of a condiment to go along with favourite dishes. Often, it can be found in food dishes also containing mustard, horseradish and chili peppers. In effect, people in Japan often add essence to their sushi and sashimi by spraying them with ground wasabi rhizome. In addition, wasabi is also used to enhance the taste of soup, noodles, rice and meat and fish preparations, especially those that have been barbequed. As the hotness and the pungency of wasabi are somewhat strong, it is advisable that you should never use it in excess of a dash on any food, particularly if any individual is having wasabi for the first time ever.
In Japanese gastronomy, wasabi forms a staple condiment and, among other things, is often served along with noodles and sushi. The leaves of Wasabia japonica may be dried up and utilized to enhance the flavour of various types of foods, including cheese, salads, and crackers; and/ or used fresh to make pickles in soy sauce or sake brine. A number of specialty stores in Japan sell a Wasabi wine, which is more of a novelty product. In addition, Wasabi liqueur, having lower alcohol content, is also available in Japan.
There are several other culinary uses of wasabi. For instance, one may roast or fry legumes (such as peas, peanuts and soybeans) and then cover them with wasabi powder blended with salt, sugar or oil and consume them in the form of a crispy snack.
Besides using it as a condiment, wasabi is also used as an ingredient in several medications. In addition, the wasabi plant is also dried, pounded and added to toothpaste. As the essence as well as the strength of the wasabi powder deteriorates very rapidly, toothpastes containing wasabi powder are usually marketed in small tubes that are more like the travel sized products.
Habitat and cultivation
Wasabi is a perennial species that grows extremely sluggishly. These plants have branched roots, a condensed stem (also known as a rhizome), large leaves and elongated petioles (stem leaves). Each and every part of this plant, counting the leaves, stems, roots and rhizome, is collected, ground and employed for various purposes. The long petioles (stems) of wasabi appear from the rhizome and grow to a height of anything between 12 inches and 18 inches and, in some instances, may even measure about 40 mm (1 ½ inches) across. These petioles end to form solitary leaves that are heart-shaped. When grown in the most favourable conditions, the leaves of wasabi may be as large as a small dinner plate. The rhizome of Wasabia japonica functions as the store room of the plant, where all its nutrients (akin to that of a potato) are stored. Incidentally, the flavours of this herb are also more intense in the rhizome. The rhizome of wasabi resembles a Brussels sprout stalk following the removal of the sprouts.
As the wasabi plants are very slow growing perennials, they may often take as many as three years to mature. When grown in the appropriate conditions, in the initial stage, the Wasabia japonica plants develop a vigorous top as well as the growth of the root too is healthy, often attaining an approximate height of two feet having nearly the same width in general. Once this early stage of growth passes, during which the plant establishes itself, the rhizome of the plant starts developing and storing more useful nourishments. Such concentration of vital energy is actually responsible for producing the most excellent flavours owing to which the wasabi rhizomes are usually extremely valued for culinary use. Normally, the wasabi rhizome attains a size of anything between 6 inches to 8 inches in length and about one inch in diameter in about two years from its inception.
Usually, the leaves and the leaf stems (petioles) of wasabi have a tendency to break easily. In fact, breakage or harm to them by field workers, animals or even messing up with them may result in slowing their pace of growth or even stop their growth completely.
When Wasabia japonica plants are cultivated under the most favourable conditions, they will self-propagate by means of their seeds. However, in the commercial farms cultivating wasabi, the plant stock is usually developed by planting the small offshoots again, which occur naturally while the plant becomes matured.
From before, many scientists were aware of the fact that Wasabia japonica and to some extent even other vegetables belonging to the same family enclosed a chemical known as isothiocyanate, which seemed to stop the development of cancer by setting off a process called apoptosis (also known as cell death) in carcinogenic cells. However, the researchers were not aware as to why and how this chemical helped in combating cancer. This is the primary reason as to why the scientists were not able to substantiate that wasabi was effective in eliminating cancer cells.
However, findings of a study undertaken by scientists at the Georgetown University have shown that this chemical (vegetable isothiocyanates) binds to a flawed protein present in the carcinogenic cells by means of the tubulin. In fact, it is only when the protein is imperfect that the vegetable isothiocynates attach to it. It is important to note that a protein becomes defective only when a normal cell turns out to be cancerous. All normal protein as well as the cell are left undisturbed.
The gene p53 controls the production of the defected protein that is being discussed here. This gene generally works by stopping any cell from multiplying frenziedly and when the gene p53 becomes mutated, the protein becomes defective. In addition, the cells having the mutated p53 genes are actually additionally resilient to cancer treatment using chemical methods. However, even such cells are not resistant to the isothiocyanates contained by Wasabia japonica.
Ingestion of Wasabia japonica may possibly assist in diminishing the risks of developing cancer as this herb contains vegetable isothiocyanates that were found to enhance the rate of elimination of the cancer cells having the p53 mutation.
During their researches, scientists have discovered that breast cancer cells were killed when the vegetable isothiocyanate present in Wasabia japonica attached itself to the defective p53 protein. Scientists are of the view that this may be possible as the mutated gene too makes the carcinogenic cells susceptible to the toxic effects of the isothiocyanate, which the normal cells are resilient to.
Chemical analysis of the plant wasabi has revealed that it encloses a significant quantity of potassium as well as reasonable quantities of calcium and vitamin C. Nevertheless, as small amounts of wasabi are usually employed in the form of a flavouring agent, this herb actually does not meet the criteria of being a considerable source of the nutrients mentioned above.
Wasabi also encloses a volatile allyl isothiocyanate, which is known to be a vital chemical that effectively combats cancer and, at the same time, is responsible for the original pungency of the plant. It may be noted here that the natural chemical allyl isothiocyanate is made by hydrolysis of the natural rhizome thioglucosides, which is actually a combination of the sugar glucose and the organic compounds containing sulfur.
Side effects and cautions
One story in New York, while the second in California, talk about the grave negative effects caused by the consumption of a liberal amount of wasabi. According to these two reports, ingestion of wasabi in reasonable quantities has the potential to result in side effects like whitening of the face, excessive sweating, confusion and sometimes even fainting. In fact, these side effects may prove to be serious for people having feeble blood vessels within the brain or the heart. At least one such patient has supposedly endured ‘vasomotor near collapse’ following the intake of a small quantity of the plant. It is said that this person took the entire amount in a single bite as he was not familiar with wasabi. People who visit Japanese restaurants for food ought to be aware of the fact that the green wasabi paste served to them is supposed to be mixed with tamari (a soy sauce) and consumed in extremely small measures.