Second Draft


Heat that’s Up Your Nose

Posted in Food,Research by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, March 11, 2010

I’m getting a great kick out of trying to figure out what people ate during the Sengoku Jidai.  Sometimes we’ve had to work at that problem backhandedly.  I’m thinking of wasabi right now — that tasty green root, whose effect, a wave of brain-displacing fumes up the back of your nose, so resembles that of horseradish.

Wasabi roots, in a Tokyo restaurant

Most wasabi you get in Canadian restaurants is horseradish — powdered, mixed with water and coloured green — because wasabi roots are difficult to cultivate.  (The plants only grow in or beside mountain streams, for one thing.)  Real wasabi, though, has layers of delicate flavour that transcend standard horseradish.  Much as I love horseradish, this could give it a run for its money.

Our friend Hicaru took us to his favourite Tokyo restaurant when we visited, and for the first time we got to eat real wasabi.  It was used in the way we’re used to, with sushi and sashimi, and Hicaru also showed Michael and Lorna how to use it as a garnish for their soba noodles, which was new to all of us from Canada.  He grated it on a traditional grater, which I now know, after some research, is made of sharkskin.  The flavour — of the wasabi, not the sharkskin — was lively, bright, and intense.

Grating wasabi root on a sharkskin grater

So, you ask, what’s this got to do with the Sengoku period?  Well, we were hoping to have our characters enjoy wasabi in some way.  Not being able to find a handy menu of Sengoku Jidai condiments, we decided the way to work it was to try and learn just when wasabi was first cultivated in Japan.  We’re still working on the details, but apparently written record has been found of its being grown as early as the year 685.  That means our characters will likely be able to enjoy some with their suppers.

Wasabi has antibacterial qualities as well, so maybe it was used medicinally, too — even before people knew what bacteria were, they knew that some plants seemed to help fight infections, so maybe wasabi was used in poultices for wounds.  I’ll have to look into that.  I’ll bet it would sting like crazy.

In the meantime, one or the other of us will see you tomorrow, all going well!

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