I'll never forget the first time I visited a Japanese hibachi restaurant, the kind where everyone is seated around a large griddle and, other than the people you came in with, you never know who the rest of your dining companions will be.
Besides my husband and another couple, the rest of the guests at our table were strangers who obviously were having a much better time than we were. Either that or they began hitting the saki well before they came to dinner.
As the chef prepared the meal on the flat, stainless griddle in front of us, our dining companions began shouting, ''Wasabi! Wasabi!'' loud enough for the entire restaurant to get an idea of what was obviously their favorite seasoning. The chef and diners at other tables soon got in the act and before long, chants of ''Wasabi!'' were echoing throughout the room.
''What's wasabi?'' my husband whispered to me above the shouting.
Of course I had to find out, so after we got home from our strange dinner, I went to the computer. Wasabi, it turns out, is Japanese horseradish. It grows as a root vegetable (Wasabia japonica), and just like our familiar horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), it is ground into a paste and used as a spicy seasoning.
I had no idea how spicy wasabi could be until I tried it with sushi much later. While I enjoy spicy food, I thought it made our horseradish seem mild.
We can grow horseradish quite easily around here. In fact, it can be invasive in some home gardens, which is why it is recommended to grow it in another location than the garden proper.
Wasabi, however, is much more difficult to grow. Horseradish grows in full sun and doesn't mind if it doesn't get regular watering. Wasabi hates the sun, prefers cooler temperatures than we can give it over the summer and wants lots of moisture. In some Japanese cool mountain streams, wasabi grows in the water.
Not only is wasabi difficult to grow, it is also expensive to grow, and for that reason our dining companions that night, in spite of their pleas, probably didn't have real wasabi at all. Most of the green paste sold as wasabi and served in restaurants and sushi bars is actually a paste made of our common horseradish mixed with vinegar, mustard and green food coloring. Sorry.
Although I always keep a jar of horseradish in my refrigerator, I had pretty much forgotten about wasabi until I received my annual media kit from Renee's Garden. Inside the kit was a complimentary packet of a new variety of arugula called wasabi. From the drawing on the front of the packet, it looks similar to any common lawn weed. It must be noted here that many common lawn weeds are actually edible herbs.
I'm excited to try this new variety of arugula. Also called ''rocket,'' common arugula leaves add a peppery bite to salads. People who find plain lettuce bland and boring might enjoy the extra kick that arugula can provide.
Not only is it tasty and easy to grow, but since it is a cool weather plant, it is one of the first crops to be planted and harvested in the vegetable garden. Hot weather causes common arugula to be even more pungent, but in late summer, a new sowing can go into the garden for an early fall harvest.
According to Renee's description of the plant, wasabi arugula has a spicy flavor that is just like fresh wasabi and the plants are more heat tolerant than common arugula varieties.
Renee's Garden is an online seed company. You can buy the seeds locally at garden centers that carry them, or they can be ordered online. To avoid extra shipping charges, ask your favorite garden center to start stocking Renee's seeds. What I like best about the company is that the seeds are organic and never treated or genetically modified.
Wasabi arugula isn't the only new variety I'm anxious to try this year from Renee's Garden. I'm looking forward to the baby napa cabbage called Little Jade, the Portuguese kale Tronchuda Beira, and the new container zucchini Astia.
I'll let you know later in the season whether or not I liked the new arugula, but don't take my word for it. For the cost of a packet of seeds, make up your own minds.