In the late 1990s, sushi restaurants in the United States were a novelty, of sorts, with their clientele usually immigrants from the Land of the Rising Sun and foodies. By the late 2000s, these restaurants enjoyed sales exceeding $3 billion a year, a significant feat further reinforced by the 3% growth rate the segment has consistently enjoyed. Indeed, Japanese restaurants like Benihana are among the most popular of their kind due to the sustained interest in Japanese cuisine among Americans.
But it isn’t just in sushi restaurants that the ingredients used in Japanese cuisine are gaining widespread acceptance. Many American homes are using these ingredients, too, sometimes in traditional ways, sometimes in surprising ways.
Sushi is undoubtedly the most popular Japanese food in the United States now and its popularity has driven the wasabi, its best condiment, into the mainstream. Well-known chefs have used it in innovative ways, too, and highlighted its versatility as an ingredient.
Wolfgang Puck used it as a flavoring for mashed potatoes, a dish served in his restaurant, Chinois on Main, an Asian fusion cuisine restaurant. Even The Cheesecake Factory offers wasabi-spiked potatoes, seared ahi tuna with wasabi butter sauce, and a seared tuna tataki salad with wasabi vinaigrette.
But what exactly is wasabi? Extracted from Wasabi japonica, a plant belonging to the same family as mustard and horseradish, wasabi paste has a sharp and spicy taste that complements many dishes. While its burn on the mouth is short and sweet – and it’s a good thing, too, since it doesn’t overpower the desired taste of the food when it’s applied in small quantities – it has an intense aroma.
The spicy taste travels from your mouth to your sinuses, a slow but sure awakening of your senses. Be careful about inhaling too much of its aroma as it may just turn you off from enjoying its intense flavor. But you will soon get used to the aroma and crave for the flavor.
Upscale Japanese sushi restaurants grate the wasabi root to order and then make a paste out of it. The to-order grating is a must since wasabi loses its scent and most of its flavor minutes after being grated.
But wasabi roots are expensive – more than $100 a pound – so many sushi restaurants use a substitute, usually a combination of horseradish, mustard and food coloring. The use of mustard and horseradish as substitutes for wasabi is understandable considering that these plants have a similar – not the same, mind you – spiciness. The light green hue mimics the exact coloring of grated wasabi root.
Wasabi connoisseurs know that there’s a significant difference between the two. Where genuine wasabi has a smooth spiciness to it, substitute wasabi has a slightly sharper bite. If you have the money for genuine wasabi, buy it and enjoy the difference in your dishes.
Tip: Don’t even think about gorging on wasabi – you will become sick, not to mention that it can be physically painful.
If you’re a sushi addict or a red pepper flakes aficionado, then carrying a togarashi in your bag isn’t as weird as it seems. Technically, togarashi is a small hot red Japanese chili but when sold as a ready-to-use product, it’s a spice mix – think of it as the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese five spice or the Indian curry but unlike them, togarashi is usually used as a finishing spice.
The spices, seeds and other ingredients used in togarashi varies. The most common ingredients, however, include seaweed, sesame seeds, orange zest, chile powder, and ginger.
Togarashi is used in innovative ways in the United States. It’s used to enhance the flavor of togarashi edamame with garlic and sea salt; sprinkled over seared albacore and stir-fried vegetables; and mixed with ranch dressing and served with tempura zucchini fries.
What does it actually taste like? It’s a multi-dimensional spice mix with a toasty sweet and spicy flavor, underlined by subtle umami notes from the seaweed, floral notes from the orange zest, and zing from the ginger.
If you think that your food tastes bland or boring, you may want to sprinkle togarashi on it. Name the food and it will likely be a suitable pairing with togarashi – pizzas, popcorn, salads, seared fish, soft-cooked eggs, roast vegetables, chicken, and pasta are just a few possibilities.
Fermented foods aren’t exactly the most popular foods in mainstream American cuisine with its emphasis on freshness on one hand and processed foods – read: fast-food – on the other hand. But miso appears to be the exception and it’s a great thing, too, considering that it has a savory umami flavor that can’t be beat.
Miso is actually made from fermented soybeans. Such is its versatility that it can be used in traditional miso soups, vinaigrettes, and even butterscotch cookies. Of the three ingredients in this list, we have to say that miso is the most well-known among non-Japanese diners.
When you’re at a favorite restaurant, you may want to take a second look at the menu. you may be surprised that the chefs have incorporated one of these three quintessential Japanese ingredients to tweak their dishes.