In a nutshell, real wasabi refers to a paste made from the rhizome of the Wasabia japonica plant, also known as Japanese horseradish.
Some brands of tube wasabi go the extra mile in ensuring the use of only 100% real Japanese horseradish in their products—as opposed to cheaper substitutes.
However, nothing can surpass the full-bodied flavor of this delicious treat when consumed fresh.
So, how much can you expect to pay for the real thing?
The answer varies based on where you live: from a small fortune if you live in the United States or Europe ($396/kg) ($11.25/oz), to slightly more reasonable prices if you live in Japan ($125.20/kg – $252.22/kg) ($3.55/oz – $7.15/oz).
With that being said, this stuff isn’t meant to be consumed by the spoonful so, in reality, its relatively low cost per serving makes integrating wasabi into one’s dietary lifestyle a viable proposition.
What’s more, fresh wasabi can last up to several weeks in the fridge, giving you plenty of time to fully explore its complex flavors.
This condiment works well with more than just sushi and fish sashimi, being a good accompaniment to fatty meats and even natto or avocado slices seasoned with lemon juice.
In other words, both time and variety are on your side when it comes to this wonderful rhizome.
The Fast-Foodification of Wasabi
Throughout the 1800s, wasabi was a delicacy with a short shelf life that could only be consumed freshly grated, but this all changed in the twentieth century—a time for experimentation, when resourceful inventors sought to give a modern twist to established culinary traditions.
Alongside the birth of instant noodles in 1958, perhaps one of the most notable culinary inventions to hail from Japan in recent history was tube wasabi, in the early 1970s.
The Pros and Cons of Powdered Wasabi
For the sake of precision, it should be noted that wasabi was already being sold in powdered form as early as 1923, as evidenced by a newspaper ad from the period, which touted the “end of the era of the profligacy of using fresh wasabi.”
Simply adding water, the advertisement explained, would have the effect of transmuting the powder into an equivalent to fragrant and spicy fresh wasabi.
The powdered form to this day remains a passable facsimile, but its texture—more reminiscent of matcha ice cream than of the elusive plant—serves as a constant reminder of the reason real wasabi is such a prized delicacy.
Another downside is the need to add water to the wasabi powder and stir the resulting mixture, as if it were cake batter, making the process somewhat labor-intensive and less convenient.
The Pros and Cons of Tube Wasabi
Tube wasabi obviates this process and arguably tastes better, so it’s only natural that it grew in popularity, eventually reaching restaurant tables all across the globe.
Unfortunately, tube wasabi inherits one of the problems found in the powdered form, namely the fact that authentic wasabi only retains its flavor for a very brief window of time.
To wit, wasabi reaches peak pungency around five minutes after grating, after which point the flavor starts to dissipate, completely disappearing after approximately 15 minutes.
Manufacturers address this issue through the use of stabilizers and a variety of other food additives designed to preserve and enhance flavor.
Additionally, growing real wasabi is an expensive proposition so, rather than taking a purist approach, companies have chosen to go down the path of compromise and make extensive use of horseradish and mustard, alongside a dash of real wasabi, if that.
Wasabi powder and its latter tube incarnation made this spicy condiment more accessible to consumers domestically and helped popularize in the Western world dishes like sushi and sashimi.
However, when all is said and done, extensive production and logistics constraints mean this product bears little to no resemblance to the original green paste consumed as part of Japanese cuisine.
It is, for all intents and purposes, a twentieth-century invention.
Buying Real Wasabi
The first step in the real wasabi experience is finding actual rhizomes for sale—a trivial task in Japan, but one that rapidly takes on a Herculean dimension when one realizes just how few commercial operations exist outside of the country.
In tube form, the only real indicator is the writing on the package, but on a visit to the produce section of any decent supermarket in Japan, you couldn’t possibly mistake this green-colored bad boy for its less ostentatious cousin—the horseradish, or “Western wasabi” as it is sometimes called.
Botanically, this is not the case, but visually speaking, one could even argue that, with its earthy color and root-like shape, horseradish actually bears a greater visual resemblance to ginger than to real wasabi, or “Hon” wasabi as it is called in Japan.
Hon wasabi is now grown all over the world, in Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S., etc.*, but Japan-grown wasabi tends to fetch a higher price compared to its international counterparts, with the regional appellation—usually Nagano, Shizuoka, and Iwate Prefectures—proudly displayed on the label.
*Footnote: Sultana, Tamanna & P. Savage, Geoffrey; BANGLADESH JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH – Wasabi – Japanese Horseradish
The question is: how much should you expect to pay for real, fresh wasabi?
Naturally, the answer varies based on geography—with consumers in Japan getting much more competitive prices for the delicacy—but the truth is that there’s a tremendous degree of variance even within the local market.
What’s more, in Japan, fruits and vegetables are not usually sold by the pound (or kilo), but rather on a unitary basis, so this only serves to complicate things further.
It’s only reasonable for a pencil-thin rhizome to go for a heavily discounted price.
More robust specimens, on the other hand, would be expected to fetch a higher price, so it’s always useful to have a mental picture of what the ‘average’ rhizome looks like in terms of length, and weight, so that we have a yardstick for meaningful comparison.
There is indeed a level of variance within the Japanese market, as well as a degree of variability in terms of rhizome sizes and the like, but all of these slight complications pale in comparison to the travails of procuring authentic wasabi outside of Japan.
Prices in the U.S. / Europe
Compared to the horseradish and mustard used in imitation wasabi, the Wasabia japonica plant is much more demanding in terms of where it can be grown and under what conditions.
Unlike other crops, it is ill-suited for mass production and mechanization, so very few venture into commercial operations in this area.
In light of the above, one can say that this elusive Japanese rhizome has indeed earned the title of ‘hardest plant to grow’ – as awarded by BBC News business reporter Kim Gittleson in an article published back in 2014.
Furthermore, and while the number of restaurants specializing in Japanese cuisine continues on an upward trend, very few places make it a policy to use only hon wasabi when serving delicacies like sushi or sashimi, instead almost invariably succumbing to the allure of the much cheaper ersatz variant.
This combination of limited supply and subdued demand unfortunately means a lack of availability and higher prices for aficionados living outside Japan.
Wasabi is a pricey delicacy, even at the wholesale level, where it fetches anywhere between $160 (as per the aforementioned BBC News article) and $250 per kilogram (as per Business Insider).
At the retail level, prices are so steep you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re buying gold bullion.
Case in point, YouTuber Mark Thompson paid $45 for four ounces of fresh wasabi.
(N.B. He likely misspoke in the video and meant to say he purchased “four ounces,” which is equivalent to a quarter of a pound, and not a quarter ounce.)
I was surprised to hear they sent him 4 rhizomes, because that brings the arithmetic average significantly below the average rhizome weight of between 45 and 60 grams (1.58 – 2.11 ounces).
That’s almost 40% below the lower-end estimate of what one would expect, so the plants they sent him were really quite small.
At $45 for four rhizomes, that represents a staggering unitary cost of $11.25 or, $11.25 per ounce, excluding shipping.
That’s a whopping $396.8 per kilogram – approximately twice the wholesale prices cited by the BBC and other sources.
How Much Is Real Wasabi in Japan?
Compare and contrast this to the prices offered on the Japanese e-commerce site Rakuten: 3 rhizomes for a combined 150 grams for 2,160 yen—shipped directly from Izu, one of the country’s most iconic growing regions.
150 grams = 5.29109 ounces = 2,160 yen / 115 = $18.78
$18.78 / 0.15 kilograms = $125.20
$18.78 / 5.29109 ounces = $3.55
Assuming an exchange rate of 115 yen, that comes to around $125.20 per kilogram ($3.55 per ounce,) for a 68% discount compared to U.S. prices.
Other sellers on Rakuten charge a little bit more, but Japanese consumers can still expect to pay close to 40% less than their American counterparts.
45 grams = 1.58733 ounces = 1,305 yen / 115 = $11.35
$11.35 / 0.045 kilograms = $252.22
$11.35 / 1.58733 ounces = $7.15 (36% discount compared to U.S. prices)
At the Supermarket
During a visit to my local supermarket, I was able to find hon wasabi selling for around 1,060 yen per rhizome.
Standardization is virtually non-existent and few clues are given on the package, so there’s an element of guessing involved.
However, these do fall on the larger end of the size and weight distribution curve, so we can more or less confidently use an average baseline of 50 grams per rhizome as a meaningful yardstick for comparison.
50 grams = 1.7637 ounces = 1,060 yen / 115 = $9.20
$9.20 / 0.05 kilograms = $184
$9.20 / 1.7637 ounces = $5.22
Naturally, there’s no shipping involved when buying one’s groceries at the local supermarket, making $184 per kilogram ($5.22 per ounce) the most competitive option for the price-conscious consumer in Japan.
What’s more, wasabi doesn’t have a season per se, so it can be found in supermarkets throughout the year, although you can expect it to be more prominently displayed during the late fall and early winter months.
By contrast, tube wasabi is significantly more affordable:
43 grams = 1.51678 ounces = 149 yen / 115 = $1.30
$1.30 / 0.043 kilograms = $30
$1.30 / 1.51678 ounces = $0.86
These prices refer to paste made using 100% Wasabia japonica, so shoppers willing to compromise a bit and use a formula containing over 50% horseradish can get even lower prices.
With that being said, even premium brands make use of food additives and thickeners like xanthan gum and coloring agents containing cape jasmine, etc.
So, in reality, the net weight is lower than 43 grams; moreover, the addition of these compounds alters the taste profile, so there’s a difference there, as well.
The Grater Conundrum
As far as utensils go, experts and connoisseurs would probably opt for the use of traditional wasabi graters made from dried sharkskin.
These are admittedly a fine option, if for nothing else than the level of care and craftsmanship that goes into carving each of these instruments, but possessing a traditional wasabi grater is hardly a pre-requisite for enjoying the gustatory delight this plant has to offer.
I believe there are two ways to look at it: on the one hand, real wasabi is a pricey commodity already, so it’s understandable that one might not be too keen to fork over up to $150 for a traditional grater, when it could reasonably be argued that a plastic one purchased at the local Walmart for a fraction of the price might just as well do the trick.
On the other hand, by that same logic, one might as well settle for the fake wasabi served at the majority of Japanese restaurants worldwide—this chemical hodgepodge of common horseradish, mustard, and minuscule amounts of real wasabi now having effectively replaced the original.
Besides, artisanal graters come in various sizes, so the budget-conscious wasabi connoisseur can always settle for a small grater for personal use, as these are relatively inexpensive.
An added benefit of going the extra mile and purchasing the real thing is the fact you’ll have a more authentic experience compared even to Western connoisseurs who have dedicated years of their lives to Japanese ingredients and cuisine.
Experts like Jon Old—a watercress farmer who discovered the wonders of this magnificent plant and went on to found the first commercial wasabi operation in Europe—and French sushi chef Manu Letellier, seem to prefer Japanese metal graters.
Admittedly, these produce a very fine grating, but traditionally, such a utensil would be avoided in order to prevent the wasabi paste from potentially acquiring a subtle, but nonetheless lingering taste of metal.
Such was the level of care that went into preparing wasabi, and dried sharkskin graters were deemed the best tools for the job.
Because of this, even a modest outlay in one of these bad boys is likely to pay off rather handsomely in terms of bragging rights.