Why the wasabi that comes with your sushi likely isn't wasabi

A new video takes viewers to a wasabi farm in Japan, and explains what goes into producing the real stuff and why it's so expensive.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
2 min read

There's a great scene in "Cars 2" where tow truck Mater, on a visit to Japan, thinks a giant trough of wasabi is pistachio ice cream. Predictably, the results are disastrous. It does take a while to warm up to the fiery green stuff that we often eat with our sushi, but most of the time what we're eating isn't wasabi after all.

Most wasabi that's served in restaurants or sold in stores is really horseradish that's colored green, and horseradish is a different plant entirely from wasabi. Foodies probably already knew this. But to those of us who take what it says on the menu as gospel, it may make for a nice bit of trivia to drop at your next sushi lunch.

A video uploaded Sunday by CNN's Great Big Story takes viewers to the Daio Wasabi Farm in Hotaka, Japan, one of the country's largest wasabi growers, to explain just why the real stuff is so rare.

"Too much sunlight is not good, nor is not enough sunlight, you need just the right amount," says Yujiro Hashimoto, farm production chief.

The plant takes 15 months to grow, and the most essential ingredient is spring water that must be at 13-18 degrees Celsius (55-64 Fahrenheit). No wonder prices for the actual plant start around $80 a pound.

"Real wasabi has a complex taste," Hashimoto says in the video. "There is a spiciness followed by sweetness."

Sweet, maybe, but don't make Mater's mistake. Real or fake, it's no pistachio ice cream.