Both pungent, sinus-searing members of the Brassicaceae family, horseradish and wasabi have a lot in common—enough that many sushi places pass off tinted horseradish as wasabi—but they are distinctly different ingredients.
Horseradish, perennial partner to roast beef and bracing booster of Bloody Marys, is a white-fleshed, brown-skinned root vegetable that grows in Europe, Asia, and North America, with Illinois growing the most horseradish in the United States. Its curious name may come from the German word for the plant, meerrettich, which means “sea radish” (since horseradish often grows wild near the coast) and is pronounced something like “mare-retisch”—so English speakers may have heard “mare” and believed it referred to the animal. Other sources say the “horse” part of the name denotes the strong, rough character of the plant, while the “radish” half is self-evident (and indeed, radishes are also from the Brassicaceae family, along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and mustard).
The aggressively spicy taste is actually the plant’s way of defending itself, though of course it has the opposite effect when it comes to humans—and in addition to being tasty, is medicinally useful in small doses as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and brute-force congestion cure. You could come to harm from eating too much horseradish, especially if you have ulcers or are pregnant, but it would probably have to be quite a lot for it affect you. If you process a ton of it at once, though, you might want to wear a gas mask if you’ve got one, since the fumes can be highly irritating. If you can’t find fresh, raw horseradish root to grate yourself, you can buy jars or bottles of prepared horseradish, which is just the ground root mixed with vinegar to stabilize the heat level (though sometimes salt and other additives are present, so check your ingredients list).
Wasabi, on the other hand, is much more elusive. It’s a rhizome (or long underground stem that sends out shoots) native to Japan, and has grown wild there near mountain streams since at least the 10th century, and been purposely cultivated since the 16th century. The hardy green subterranean stem of the plant is grated for consumption much like horseradish, but the leaves are also edible. It is spicy, though said to be slightly less harsh than horseradish, with a smoother, more complex and herbal character as well. These days, it’s farmed on a relatively small scale in China, Australia, New Zealand, and some parts of North America—Oregon was the first place it was grown in the US—but since it doesn’t grow as quickly (it can take up to 3 years to reach full maturity), or generally get as large as horseradish, it’s still a more expensive product, and harder to come by. There’s an oft-repeated anecdote that Greek mythology had the Oracle of Delphi telling Apollo horseradish was worth its weight in gold, but wasabi is even more valuable. It has the same health benefits as horseradish, too.
Since true wasabi is so rare and expensive, that’s why you’re often getting a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and green dye instead of the real thing alongside your sushi and coating your crunchy peas. Same thing with most prepared wasabi in a tube; even if it just says “Wasabi” in big, bold letters on the package, look at the ingredients—if wasabi is actually one of them, it’s likely joined by lots of other things. If you can get the real thing in rhizome form, try preparing it on a traditional shark skin grater, but work fast, because it loses its clear, spicy, green taste after only about 15 minutes.
Probably best to stick to the adulterated stuff we’re all used to eating by now. And here are some ways to use both spicy substances in the kitchen:
Plain grated horseradish is often used as the bitter component of a Passover seder plate, but adding grated beets imbues a beautiful ruby color and a little earthy sweetness to tone it down. Get our Beet Horseradish recipe.
A lovely spring dish showcasing eggs and asparagus, this balances between delicate and robust without becoming overpowering. There’s horseradish in the sour cream sauce (thinned with milk), and in the frittata filling, along with sharp white cheddar. Get our Asparagus Frittata with Horseradish Sour Cream recipe.
This sauce is based on equal parts crème fraîche and heavy cream, with a full 2/3 cup of horseradish, making a perfectly pungent but luscious counterpart to any kind of beef or steak, from prime rib to roast beef sandwiches. Get our Horseradish-Cream Sauce recipe.
Bloody Marys tend to get most of the brunch love, but a Bloody Maria swaps in tequila for the usual vodka, and this version also adds pickled jalapeños and Cholula hot sauce to the requisite horseradish for a really eye-opening kick. Get our Extra-Spicy Bloody Maria recipe.
A creamy, pleasantly spicy potato salad that cuts the mayo with Greek yogurt for extra tang (and also happens to be healthier), this is ready to take its place at all your cookouts and picnics this spring and summer. Get the recipe.
Dead simple but deeply delicious, these skewers of meaty salmon and scallions are brushed with a tingly, sweet, and salty mix of wasabi, honey, and soy. Make them on a grill pan, outdoor grill, or under the broiler depending on what’s most convenient. Get the recipe.
This light, refreshing salad is crunchy, nutty (thanks to the toasted sesame seeds), and simultaneously warm and cooling. It’s also super easy to put together, and the kind of thing you find yourself making multiple times a week in warm weather. Try it with tofu stir fries, grilled or roasted fish, or practically any Asian-spiced meat dish. Get the recipe.
Packaged wasabi peas mingle with Chex cereal, pretzels, rice crackers, and cashews in this addictive snack, with a bit of powdered wasabi in the seasoning mix (which also includes garlic, ginger, brown sugar, and soy sauce) for an extra jolt of spicy heat. Get the recipe.
If you’re not a fan of mayo, try this egg salad with mashed avocado providing the creaminess, and wasabi for zip. Chopped green apple may sound like an odd addition, but it brings a sweet-tart crunch that works well. Get the recipe.
If you can’t be bothered to roll your own sushi, try this easy tuna tartare instead, tossed with wasabi powder, mirin, soy sauce, mustard powder, vinegar, and honey, with crispy fried shallots and creamy cubes of avocado to finish the dish. Get our Tuna Tartare with Avocado and Crispy Shallots recipe.
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