Real wasabi is hard to come by outside of Japan. That’s because it’s notoriously difficult to cultivate and to ship abroad.
If you’ve ever had real wasabi, though, then you’ve had a bizarre and invigorating experience. You feel the intensity in your sinuses, like eating something incredibly spicy. Sometimes, you might even feel your head get itchy.
But why does this happen? Why is wasabi spicy?
It turns out, there’s an interesting reaction causing that famous spice factor. We’ll tell you all about it here.
Quick Answer: Why is Wasabi Spicy?
The heat of wasabi comes from a compound called allyl isothiocyanate. It’s released when the wasabi plant is macerated or ground – such as when we’re chewing on it. Similarly, it can be released when the plant is damaged as a self-defense mechanism.
In other words, the plant developed the spiciness as a way of protecting itself in the wild.
What is Allyl Isothiocyanate?
When some people go grocery shopping, they specifically look at the labels for ingredients with small, easy-to-understand names. Such ingredients are often more natural, and many argue they’re better for you.
But even when you take an entirely naturally occurring thing, such as a plant, and break down its components, you’ll start to find long, intimidating names. Allyl isothiocyanate is a prime example of this.
It’s an organosulfur compound that naturally occurs in a handful of plants. Appearance-wise, it’s an oil without any kind of color that’s water soluble.
That’s why, when you eat wasabi, the taste fades quickly. Washing it down with water is entirely possible, unlike the capsaicin you’ll find in peppers.
Other Foods with the Same Effect
The wasabi plant is not the only one with allyl isothiocyanate in it. You can find this same compound in horseradish and various kinds of mustard seeds.
This similarity in compounds is actually why the wasabi you see most often in the United States is actually made from a combination of horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring.
If you’re trying to find authentic wasabi outside of Japan, you’re in for a challenge. It’s not something you can find in the typical grocery store. However, you might be able to find it in a specialty grocery store or upscale Japanese restaurant.
The spiciness of wasabi comes from the fact it shares the same component found in horseradish and mustard: allyl isothiocyanate. This compound was developed as a defense mechanism to protect these plants from being eaten.
Chances are, though, you haven’t been able to experience real wasabi because of how rare it is outside of Japan. If you’d like to know what eating real wasabi is like, we’ve written a post about the taste of authentic wasabi.