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Food & Drinks

Wasabi Appetite Grows But It’s Acquired Taste

Wasabi
In Kenya, chefs, particularly those with Asian roots, have begun slipping wasabi here and there into their menus.  

At Pan Asian Yao restaurant in Gigiri Nairobi, I sit at a corner as I savour a wasabi ice cream, served with cashew nuts, almonds and pistachio.

Wasabi has found a place in the palates of well-travelled Kenyans however what diners are eating is not the fresh roots.

Given the rarity and expense of fresh wasabi, $160 (Sh16,000) per kilogramme, most Kenyan restaurants use its powder or paste.

“We get our wasabi from London, Korea and Japan in form of powder and paste. We ensure we get it in large quantities so that we can maintain the same taste and flavour in foods. We are also in the process of buying fresh wasabi from a Japanese company,” divulges Chef Rahul Rana, the group executive chef, The Good Earth Group, the owner of Nyama Mama Restaurant and Pan Asian Yao.

Zen Garden is another Kenyan restaurant that serves wasabi infused in different foods.

Den Signey, the executive chef at Zen Garden says they source wasabi from Korea in powder form, which they then dilute with water into a paste that they use in their dishes.

What entices foodies is that the spice, also referred to as Japanese horseradish, is medicinal and is a luxury food.

Sprinkled or blended in food, wasabi prevents food poisoning, calms the stomach as well as kills bacteria that may be lurking in dishes, especially in uncooked meat. Studies have shown that it also has the ability to reduce wrinkles.

Wasabi

Given the rarity and expense of fresh wasabi, $160 (Sh16,000) per kilogramme, most Kenyan restaurants use its powder or paste.

Exotic cuisines

In Kenya, chefs, particularly those with Asian roots, have begun slipping wasabi here and there into their menus.

The green spice that mostly accompanies sushi and sashimi is now being added in chicken burger as more diners acquire taste for exotic cuisines.

Executive chef Nicholas Anderson of Villa Rosa Kempinski explains wasabi is no longer just for sushi.

“We also use wasabi in meat marinades, sauces for seafood dishes and also ice cream,” he says.

Chef Den says the main reason why wasabi is commonly used with sushi is that it complements the raw fishy taste.

“However, as I continued to work with the ingredient, I decided to explore and make other items with it. Our wasabi mayonnaise sauce is one creation that resulted from my exploration of the plant. I also use wasabi in marinating fish, I serve it with spicy squid which when dipped in the wasabi mayonnaise the two flavours complement each other, and it results in a tasty treat,” she says.

To make the wasabi mayo, she uses the diluted wasabi paste and eggless mayonnaise on a one-to-one ratio and a bit of seasoning, adding that Kenya’s food scene has evolved over the years, luring chefs whipping up exotic cuisines.

“I’ve been working with Zen Garden since it opened {over 10 years ago} and nowadays we see local customers curious to try and experiment on new flavours unlike before when it was mostly international guests and expatriates who would enjoy offerings such as sushi,” she says.

At Villa Rosa Kempinski, Chef Nicholas says he now prepares seared beef, marinated with soy wasabi, served with eggplant and sautéed cherry tomatoes, garlic and arugula on top.

The wasabi in his creation is minimal, as I could hardly taste it. This is because chefs are also using it as a marinade. He also prepared scallops with spinach wasabi cream, seared, sautéed asparagus topped with black truffles. There was a mild taste of wasabi in the spinach, which paired perfectly with the scallops.

“There are different forms of wasabi. There is the fresh one, the premium wasabi that comes in the form of a paste, which is stronger and is not so refined and there is the powder version that is diluted with water. The fresh one is so strong it can make you cry if someone is chopping even a metre away from where you are. Villa Rosa Kempinski sources wasabi from Japan in powder form,” explains Chef Nicholas.

Pungent smell

However, what is interesting is that what diners eat is likely an imitation wasabi or a mix. Not many restaurants in the whole world can afford to serve a pure wasabi root or stem. The counterfeit wasabi is a mixture of horseradish, hot mustard and green dye. However, there are easy ways to differentiate the original wasabi from the counterfeit.

“One is by the smell. Wasabi has a strong pungent smell that is very unique and that is one way you can distinguish fake from real. Another way you can tell is by the taste.

"For someone like me who has over 23 years experience as a chef in Asia, my palette is used to the sour taste and I can easily tell the original wasabi just by placing a small amount of powder on my tongue,” Chef Nicholas of Villa Rosa Kempinski explains.

“The green colour is also another way you can differentiate the original from the counterfeit wasabi. If it is too green then you know there’s some food colour added to it,” advises Chef Den.

For five-star hotels that attract foreigners, Chef Nicholas says, it is hard to serve imitations because the diners know the taste of real wasabi, having eaten in European or Asian restaurants.

“To entice their sophisticated palates, we have to incorporate a wide variety of flavours from across the world. Our breakfast buffet, for instance, includes nigari {a type of sushi} with wasabi, pickled ginger and soy sauce. We have found that westerners are very familiar with it and they prefer to eat sushi with wasabi sauce for breakfast,” he says.

Wasabi

Wasabi has found a place in the palates of well-travelled Kenyans however what diners are eating is not the fresh roots.

Don’t eat

Even as wasabi gains a newfound popularity in innovative restaurants, do not sample large lumps. Its strong and stimulating flavour spreads through the nasal system, making people cry.

“The taste sort of wakes you and this is why westerners love it. Local diners, on the other hand, are curious to taste but afterwards they don’t try it again. I understand this may be because it is not African nature to have raw fish for breakfast unlike in some countries in the West where this is a common breakfast dish,” adds Chef Nicholas.

Wasabi was initially used by the Japanese in soups and noodle dishes but now there are interesting incorporations. The chefs say they have tasted wasabi saké (a Japanese rice wine), wasabi cookies served with coffee, which is actually trendy in Asia.

“Wasabi hasn’t really caught on that much yet in other countries. I would say chefs are still playing around with it and inventing unique dishes as the years go by,” says the Villa Rosa Kempinski executive chef.

Chef Rahul of The Good Earth Group says there is a bigger game to wasabi and people need to understand that it is not restricted to sushi and sashimi alone.

“I’m working on a recipe where I can incorporate it in dim sum as we plan to open a new Chinese restaurant soon,” he says.

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