Newsletter #251: Wild Wasabi

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Garlic Mustard



Last week, I went with my wife down to a new Japanese restaurant in Exeter. We ordered our meal, and I had a bit of sushi which came the usual wasabi paste.

Being a curious old so-and-so, I wanted to learn a bit more about the Wasabi plant. Its scientific name is Wasabia japonica.

It’s estimated only about 5% of wasabi paste is made from the Wasabia japonica root. There’s a reason for that, the root sells for £180 a kilo. That’s a lot of money.

The next day I was out walking, and I bumped into a friend of mine who’s a local grower. We talked about Wasabi and had she tried to grow it. She said she had, but all the plants had got a disease and died. Wasabia japonica is extremely difficult to grow, hence why it’s so expensive.

If you go to eateries like Yo Sushi or Wagamama, what you get is a paste made of a mix of various mustards, horseradish and food colouring.

About two years ago, I was off in the woods in early Autumn, on a day like today and I sat down next to Garlic Mustard. Usually a delicious Spring green.

As I sat next to it, I thought: ‘I don’t actually know what the root of this plant looks like’, so I uprooted it.

I do have to state that you do need landowners permission to uproot any plant. If you don’t have landowners permission, you are breaking the law.

The root is a thin, white taproot. It looks like a miniature version of Mooli, also known as Daikon.

When I bit into this small root,it was crunchy and hot with a sweet flavour. It was extraordinary. I didn’t cook it because it tasted fantastic, just raw. For me, it’s most probably up there as one of the top wild roots.

Frank Cook was my plant mentor. He died in 2009. Frank had this peculiar belief that if you find a plant in another culture, can you find a mimic of it in your own culture?

He would typically go with the genus. So if you find a plant in Japan or Africa, can you find a similar genus over here. Can it be used the same.

This approach is not black and white; it’s about exploring a possibility. Can you find a plant in the same genus over here, and could there be a similarity between the medicinal or food use as the country the original plant comes from?

That’s the thinking process – a thought experiment.

When I went to look at the photos of what Wasabia japonica looks like, to the untrained eye, you could think the leaf was the same as the Garlic Mustard plant.

That got me thinking. I reckon Garlic Mustard roots would make a cracking mimic for a wasabi paste. I haven’t done it, but I encourage you to experiment.

If you like wasabi and horseradish, I suspect you will like Garlic Mustard root.

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