wasabi mac: now that’s what i call using your noodle.

in today’s rapidly globalizing society, it seems like you can find at least one restaurant of almost any major country’s cuisine regardless of where you go.  there are french restaurants in china, chinese restaurants in the united states, japanese restaurants in canada, and italian restaurants in japan.  you get the idea.

i think some people (incorrectly) assume that these cuisines make it across borders and oceans relatively intact.  when a country imports the food of another nation, it tends to insert a its own local flair.  a chinese person eating at a chinese restaurant in america would, more than likely, be very confused as to why the food is audaciously titled “chinese food,” seeing as it bears almost no resemblance to the cuisine they ate growing up.  conversely, many chinese people i have met in japan insist that the food served in chinese restaurants in japan is better tasting and more authentic than the food served in chinese restaurants in china.

but i digress.  this post isn’t about how nations get foreign cuisine all wrong.

this post is about the world’s most misunderstood condiment.

sushi has become a huge thing worldwide.  americans can’t get enough of their sushi rolls, and sashimi has become something of delicacy all across europe.  thanks in part to the fresh flavors and stunning presentation available in most sushi restaurants, a lot of unassuming americans have shifted from the “i’m not too big on foreign food” camp to the ever-growing “this japanese stuff isn’t that bad” faction.

but behind the scenes of sushi’s rise to international fame and glory, there is a tragic, relatively unknown story skulking about.

the sad, sad story of wasabi.

any amateur can tell you that you just can’t have sushi without wasabi, soy sauce, and pickled ginger.  they are the holy trinity of sushi.  they are essential to the experience of raw fish.  some people mix their wasabi with their soy sauce in their tiny little dish.  some people place a dollop of wasabi on top of their piece of sushi and dig in.  either way, the intense yet brief spiciness provided by the lovely greenish paste is an indispensable part of the japanese food experience in the mind of most americans.

and yet, somehow, after the thousands upon thousands of sushi rolls americans have eaten, most have never actually consumed wasabi.

“but poor man, how can that be?  sure, some people don’t like it, but i know people who have eaten it literally hundreds of times.  i have friends who put it on their cereal in the morning.  i have friends who eat it straight out of the tube.  i know people who love it so much they brush their teeth with it.”

allow me to explain.

wasabi (a.k.a. eutrema japonica, a relative of cabbage and mustard) isn’t exactly the easiest veggie to cultivate.  good wasabi requires clean, cool, constantly running freshwater.  some of the best wasabi in the world is grown at the base of (or within the immediate vicinity) of waterfalls.  and, as most people are aware, waterfalls aren’t exactly the most abundantly occurring phenomenon in the world.

incidentally, the izu peninsula (where i live) happens to be one of three main places in which wasabi can be naturally cultivated en masse.  lucky me.

fresh, high-quality wasabi has a flavor that is out of this world.  it tastes and smells sweet while possessing an chemically intense heat which makes the eyes water and the nose run.  when the wasabi root is rubbed against shark skin or a grater, the cells are destroyed and it releases a chemical called allyl isothiocynate, the culprit behind that intense heat we all love and come to depend upon.  allyl isothiocynate is suspected to prevent the growth of oral bacteria, act as a mild preservative for fish and meat, and help alleviate congestion and cold symptoms.

but because it is difficult to produce, wasabi has a relatively high cost and low supply.  when the popularity of sushi exploded, the demand for wasabi naturally increased along with it.  sadly, unlike fresh fish (which is available in almost any coastal area of any national worldwide), wasabi isn’t exactly easy to come by.

so it was usurped.  in a coup, wasabi was dethroned and an imposter was installed as its successor to the kingdom of sushi.

this imposter, who we have come to know as “wasabi”, is nothing more than a mixture of common horseradish, starch, and green food coloring in a tube.  he is a cheap knock-off.  he is a whip-stitched monster constructed in a food lab somewhere to dupe those not fortunate enough to have had their tongues graced with the presence of real, homegrown, freshly ground, high-quality wasabi.

if you are reading this, i implore you to return the king to his rightful throne.  i know, for most people, it isn’t a reasonable or cost-effective request to make.  but if you have the ability to buy fresh wasabi root and grind it yourself, do so.  trust me, while it might cost more, the nutritional benefits and taste are far superior to that of its nemesis.

and so, in the tradition of importing foreign cuisine and injecting it with local flair, i decided to whip up an american classic with a few traditional japanese ingredients.  the result was one of my most innovative franken-foods yet: japanese mac and cheese.

wasabi mac

you’ll need:

  • 100g of bacon
  • half an onion
  • a pat of butter
  • six cloves of garlic
  • 200g of uncooked macaroni
  • 1.5 cup of heavy whipping cream
  • 200g of shredded mozzerella
  • a wasabi root (or a tube of imposter wasabi)
  • green laver (a.k.a. aonori)
  • japanese wild parsley (a.k.a. mitsuba)
  • dried bonito flake (a.k.a. katsuo-bushi)
  • 2 cups of dashi
  1. use a sharp knife to mince the bacon, onion, and garlic nice and fine.  try not to leave any big chunks because this is going to become your sauce for the mac and cheese.
  2. put about a teaspoon of oil in a pan and saute the ingredients you previously minced over medium-high heat.  keep cooking them until the onions become transparent and the garlic is fragrant.  then, turn off the stove.
  3. add your dashi to a pot and bring it to a boil.  add the macaroni.  reduce the pasta to medium high heat, put the lid in place, and allow it to cook.  make sure to check it on occasion.  the goal is to get the pasta just barely al dente.  if you over cook it, it will become way to soft later when you bake it.
  4. while the past is cooking, roughly chop some mitsuba leaves.
  5. drain the dashi from the pot and replace the lid to keep the noodles warm.
  6. remember your sauteed bacon, garlic, and onions?  bring the frying pan back up to medium/medium-low heat and add in a pat of butter.  slowly add your heavy whipping cream.
  7. the fats from the bacon should make the sauce pretty thick already.  when it starts to bubble just a little (make sure not to let it boil, or it will scald your cream and make your sauce brown and gross), a wasabi a little bit at a time.  if you got the root, you’ll have to grind it on an oroshi board or a grater.  if you have the imposter tube, just squeeze in a little at a time.  taste as you go.
  8. gradually stir in the cheese.  make sure not to add it all at once or it will turn into a big stick mess.  once the sauce seems sufficiently thick, fetch your pasta.
  9. fold the pasta into the sauce and make sure it is evenly distributed amongst the noodles.
  10. scoop a ladleful of noodles into an oven proof crock or glass bowl.  on top, sprinkle a hearty portion of laver, a little bit of mistuba, and some shredded cheese.  pack some more noodles on top, then add more laver, mitsuba, and cheese.
  11. last, top the whole ordeal off with a handful of katsuo-bushi.
  12. bake the bowl of noodles at about 190ºc for ten minutes (or until the cheese has completely melted).
  13. this recipe makes two or three good sized bowl of wasabi mac, so make sure to have some friends over before you give this a go.  trust me, you’ll blow their minds and blast their sinuses free of whatever happens to be obstructing them.

note: i love to pair this dish with baked teriyaki chicken wings.  both wasabi mac and teriyaki chicken are very japanese tasting, but somehow also manage to appeal to the american palette in a big way.  the result is a meal that is perfect for picky eaters and haters of foreign food.

26 thoughts on “wasabi mac: now that’s what i call using your noodle.

  1. Thank you for the elaborate education on Wasabi. I now feel like an expert. I have a jar of wasabi peas in my pantry right now. I snack on them from time to time. The only thing is I’m not sure whether they’re made of the real thing or the impostor from toothpaste tubes…I’ve never really seen wasabi the root so I can’t really tell. You have, however, raised my curiosity so I shall be on the lookout for the real thing. Thanks for sharing this recipe. It’s very unique. Have a wonderful week!

    • you can always check the ingredients on the can. 西洋わさび (western wasabi, i.e. horseradish) is the fake stuff, and 本わさび (real wasabi) is good stuff.

      i highly advise giving the real thing a go at least once. the flavor is just different. it is sweeter, more pungent, and a heck of a lot of fun to grind (if you ask me). a very common dish japanese people eat to evaluate the quality of their wasabi is ochazuke, which is a soup made from nothing more than cooked white rice, piping hot green tea, and fresh ground wasabi. i think it is one of the best porridges of all time.

    • thanks for stopping by pmk so often, it really means a lot to me.

      no, my dear mrs. carmichael. no food photography courses under this poor man’s belt. although i wish i had that opportunity sometimes.

      i take all my photos with a cheap, slightly battered, five-year-old digital camera made for underwater photography. i don’t know if i have the eye, but i do know that i have taken a lot of crappy photos and gotten very used to how my camera works (and how it doesn’t).

      in other words, what i lack in talent, i have made up for with simple trial and error.

    • thanks conor, i’m glad you enjoy my atypical vernacular.

      i figured that because you’ve taught me plenty about food on one man’s meat, i should do my best to return the favor just once. ;)

    • thanks fae!

      oh man, the katsuo and mitsuba make the dish what it is. i find mac and cheese to be a little cloying sometimes, and the freshness those two ingredients provide is crucial.

      regarding wasabi mayo: can’t be beat. sliced chicken breast, bacon, a bunch of spinach, and toasted french bread with wasabi mayo is one of my travel sandwiches of choice.

  2. Hey Misha! Loved this post! Reminded me of an experience I had in Nagoya Airport in a restaurant where I was served fresh wasabi root and a little grater with my sushi. I was so astonished at getting the real thing at an airport restaurant of all places that I took a picture. Wish I could upload it here but I’ll send to you. I was actually going to do a post on it myself but you beat me to it – and did a better job than I could have! :-)

    • hold on there, nina. i did a better job with cramming culinary history and fresh food advocacy rhetoric down everybody’s throats, but i bet you could bring some pretty awesome poetic flair to the topic. different perspectives on similar subject matter are what make life interesting. my post isn’t better at all; just different.

      you should do that post. i’ll be waiting on bated breath until you do.

      as always, thanks for stopping by pmk, nina. it means a lot to me.

  3. I love this post Misha! I have been so enlightened. Serious when I say…we eat sushi every week! Now I know we eat…”American” sushi every week. Still love it, however, I must find some real wasabi. We have a huge supermarket here in Seattle “Uwajimaya” and I am going to go there and look. Good luck right? You added some most interesting ingredients into your mac dish. Looks fantastic!

    • now now, don’t sell yourself short. seattle might be one of the only places in the states where the sushi you eat could be made with real wasabi. there is a pretty high japanese population out there, and they tend to take that kind of stuff pretty seriously.

      do you eat mostly rolls or the riceball with raw fish on top? the prior is popular in the states, while the latter is very japanese.

      uwajimaya will most likely have it, but it isn’t really in season at all right now. it’ll most likely cost an arm and a leg if you do find it. still, the roots last for quite a long time when used in moderation, so it might be worth it.

    • i’m 100% with you on this one. i generally do my best to stay away from fusion foods. in fact, i sort of detest the word. but it is very easy to get creative when you use the cuisine of one culture with the ingredients of the other.

      i was skeptical of the wasabi mac when i thought of it, but i decided to give it a go. it really was amazing.

      • After reading about your wasabi mac, I thought you could probably handle most of the recipes on my blog. Would love to hear what you think about the Japanese recipes I posted :-)

      • well, i suppose i’ll have to stop in a throw in a comment or two.

        by the by, winter here in japan means it is cod season, so i’m thinking about picking up a whole fish or two. sous-vide fillets are definitely on the list right now.

      • Cod is a bit tricky to cook sous-vide, as it will almost definitely fall apart into flakes.
        I remember having a custard of “cod’s milt” in Tokyo, which was served inside a halved orange. It was quite tasty, but I noticed even the Japanese around me didn’t eat it when they figured out what it was…

      • oh man, shirako is to die for. it was in season a few months back, and it can be cooked all sorts of tasty ways. i’m sure you probably had it raw (which is delicious), but it is great in soup, too. my favorite is when it is grilled and served up as a side dish.

        my favorite is mentaiko, though. you can’t be spicy cured cod roe when it comes to making pasta sauce.

      • We had the shirako as a custard, so I don’t think it was raw. You are lucky to live there with all those great ingredients that are unavailable elsewhere!

      • tell me about it. right now, i have so much yuzu i don’t even know what to do with myself.

        if you ever feel the need to take a cooking excursion, i highly recommend the izu peninsula. we have some of the freshest (and cheapest) seafood out there. the japanese spiny lobster around here is particularly great.

      • it’ll be hot and humid if you don’t mind, but july will be spanish mackerel season. they are awesome grilled and also make for some pretty amazing sashimi. it’ll also be freshwater eel season if that tickles your fancy.

        the produce will also be awesome. if you come in july, in izu it will be strawberry harvesting season.

  4. Oh mannnnn that looks good. (This is what “fusion” food should be.)

    I’ve also tasted real, fresh-grated wasabi grown in Yamaguchi-ken, and found it to be a world away from the stuff in the tube. (Though I had no idea that the stuff in the tube sometimes doesn’t even contain any actual wasabi at all! That’s so depressing!) The fresh stuff is much less sinus-clearingly strong but still (or more) delicious, and I’m sure it’d be an awesome addition to any kind of mac & cheese—but especially your dashi-fied version. Nice!

    • thanks, allison. it really means a lot to me for you to claim “this is what fusion food should be,” because i really thought long and hard about this recipe. i did everything within my power to make this dish as japanese as possible (based on ingredients and flavor combinations) while still keep the feel and texture of modern american soul food.

      i’m actually thinking about doing this with a few other “classic” american foods, like maybe hot dogs or ribs. let me know if you have any suggestions.

      i highly recommend you give this a try. even with imposter wasabi, it is quite amazing. the katsuo-bushi and aonori are a must, especially once they have had a little oven time to meld with cheese and noodles.

      • Yes, I was super impressed—you really succeeded in making a very Japanese mac & cheese. It’s not really one of my favorite ingredients or anything but I think mentaiko could work in there too (…not really an original thought, either, since mentaiko gets paired with pasta pretty often…).

        Anyway, I’d love to try mac & cheese with katsuobushi and aonori (if I can get Paula to sign on for that… but I think I could…), and the mitsuba sounds so good in there, too! We occasionally make mac & cheese at home with broccoli (and I like it with scallions) just to get something green in there.

        Even though I don’t eat hot dogs or ribs, I will still look forward to whatever other classic American foods you deem worthy of transforming into their Japanese versions. :)

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