I was just talking to a friend about what to eat for dinner and he said he didn't want anything spicy.

He then mentioned that Japanese food doesn't have anything spicy and I said "Wasabi".

Apparently he doesn't regard wasabi as spicy while I do.

So which one of us is right? Within the fields of gastronomy and the culinary arts is wasabi considered a spice, or something else? Is it right to describe it as "spicy"?

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    IMHO wasabi's role is much closer to that of a sauce or a condiment – Mischa Arefiev Oct 2 '12 at 11:24
  • @MischaArefiev: Interesting. I came across the term condiment in regard to wasabi while researching this question and said to myself "well some things could be both a spice and a condiment" but now your comment makes me wonder if that's right after all... – hippietrail Oct 2 '12 at 11:26
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    Hmm I would definitely count it as "spicy hot". I would've expected the best way to deal with "spice" and "spicy" not really matching works better in an answer than trying to get rid of the question... but hey it's not my site I just thought it would be an interesting question for cooking type people to teach non cooking type people. – hippietrail Oct 2 '12 at 13:59
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    The best way to deal with inconsistencies or unclear ideas in questions is for the question to be edited, and you're the best person to do that. This is far friendlier for both future readers and future answerers. A downvote is not "trying to get rid of the question", it's a sign that the question should be improved. There are no close votes - no one is trying to get rid of it. And yes, it's polite to explain downvotes, but it's better to vote without a comment than not to vote at all. – Cascabel Oct 2 '12 at 15:12
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    Regardless of the "spice" issue, wasabi IS spicy. Not spicy in the same way as hot peppers, but nonetheless a function of chemesthesis, via which we experience "spiciness"/"piquance". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spicy – heathenJesus Oct 2 '12 at 21:24

In my book, this is pretty trivial. Wasabi is absolutely a spice - it's something with a very specific flavor, derived from a plant, that can be used in fairly small quantities to add flavor to something.

It's not spicy (spicy hot, piquant) in the normal sense, though. It doesn't contain capsaicin. It is hot in some sense: it contains allyl isothiocyanate, which we obviously have a very strong reaction to. This is the same compound that's in horseradish and hot mustard. The reaction is very different from capsaicin, though. Capsaicin causes you to register heat at a much lower temperature than you normally would, so you're actually feeling heat, like you would if you were burning your tongue. It's quite literally hot, as far as your body is concerned. It's also an oil, so it can't be washed away easily with liquid, and the burning tends to linger. Wasabi, on the other hand, doesn't produce an actual sensation of heat, you feel it mostly in your nasal passages, and can easily be washed away with liquid, so it tends to be a brief sensation. So sure, "hot" is a reasonable way to describe it, mostly because we don't have a word for the actual sensation, but it's definitely not the same thing as a hot pepper.

I'm sure you can find plenty of people who would say that these are just two different kinds of spicy hot (piquancy), but arguing over definitions isn't going to get us anywhere. The important thing is that there's a fundamental difference, and there's no way you could substitute one for the other. If you want to understand why I think this (and it's not just a personal definition), go to any recipe site, search for "spicy", and see how many things with wasabi/horseradish/mustard supplying "spiciness" you find.

Edit: To stave off further debate in the comments, let me just repeat: arguing over definitions is not useful. There are probably a lot of people who think "spicy hot" should include this, and a lot who don't. I wouldn't generally expect anyone to think of wasabi without context when you say spicy hot, but you're welcome to use the terms however you and the people you talk with understand them.

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    Yes personally I would consider chilis to be one kind of hot; mustard, horseradish, and wasabi a second kind of hot; and black pepper a third kind of hot. I would call them all "spicy" and I would call them all "hot". I definitely wouldn't consider any of the types to be able to substitute for each other, though within a type possibly. The fact that others seemed to think otherwise made me think asking the experts at this site a good idea. Thanks for your answer. – hippietrail Oct 2 '12 at 15:54
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    @heathenJesus: I explicitly mentioned pretty much all of that in my answer, including why I feel that doesn't mean that they're the same thing. To clarify... First, there's clearly a culinarily difference. Some people, like you, will say that they're two kinds of something represented by the term spicy hot, and I understand why, but I respectfully disagree. For example, if someone asks for a dish to be spicy hot, I don't think they're looking for some wasabi mixed in. They want capsaicin. In any case, like I said in my answer, it's not going to get us anywhere to argue about definitions. – Cascabel Oct 2 '12 at 22:12
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    @Jefromi: I would say that if someone asks for a dish to be spicy, hot, or just as much asking for "not too spicy", that it depends entirely what the dish is. If they're ordering maki rolls they'll be talking about wasabi, if they're ordering pepper steak they're not likely to be talking about capsaicin either. – hippietrail Oct 3 '12 at 3:19
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    Actually, the best we'll get is the real definition. Capsaicin is not the only chemical that causes the chemesthetic sensation of "spiciness". You acknowledge the existence of this fact, and then denounce it because it doesn't fit your personal definition. Quarters and nickels are fundamentally different, and cannot be substituted for each other, but they're both still coins. – heathenJesus Oct 3 '12 at 13:28
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    Comments are not for debate. If you absolutely think I'm wrong, post another answer. Better yet, go ask on the english stackexchange. – Cascabel Oct 3 '12 at 14:22

I think the issue is primarily linguistic, but there may also be a mismatch between your experience of Japanese food and the average Japanese experience of Japanese food.

Let's start with the experience itself. Wasabi is generally used in moderation in Japanese cuisine, and when real, fresh wasabi is used, instead of the mustard/western horseradish mix that's more common, it's more pungent than spicy. That's a fairly nuanced distinction, and you may find both Japanese and non-Japanese that would use the word "spicy" to describe what amounts to a nasal reaction, instead of the more direct tongue stimulation that say capsaicin, or glutamates trigger. In Japanese, you might say piri or piri-tto to refer to an abrupt sensation of pungency that doesn't linger, like (real) wasabi offers, or tsuun to refer to the tingling sensation in a more visceral onomatopea. Karai is used to describe spicy foods (and, in some cases, to describe salty foods, typically soups, but let's ignore that for now).

In any event, wasabi isn't really used as heavily in everyday Japanese cooking as its popularity in the US would suggest. Additionally, the US has latched on to spicy tuna rolls and complex, multi-ingredient gooey "rolls" as representative of sushi, even though in Japan most makimono are minimalist creations involving little more than some cucumber, or gourd, and aren't even the reason you go out to a sushi restaurant. The multi-ingredient ones with say egg and pickled vegetables are still simpler in taste than what most Americans would get excited about.

For many Japanese, seeing the ridiculous amount of reconstituted wasabi served with their little plate of nigiri-sushi or the sriracha augmented rolls comes as a bit of a surprise when they visit the US. Our culinary preferences tend to be adventure-seeking, whereas Japanese tend to have more interest in sappari (refreshing) or assari (light/subtle) flavors and are more focused on texture contrasts than intense flavors.

To some degree, wasabi is a regional food (Shizuoka prefecture grows much of it), even though it's found around the country thanks to modern distribution. Sushi is not an everyday experience for most people, either, and it's not seen as a "spicy" thing when it is consumed, because most people don't eat it with loads of wasabi; they want to taste their fish.

From a culinary perspective, mustard is one of few "spices" that wouldn't actually be referred to as an herb that's really used in Japanese cuisine. (It's also a major component in mass market wasabi). Ginger is an exception, though it's also mostly used sparingly, and generally fresh, so it is only arguably "spice".

The "spicy" flavors that are popular in Japan are probably the Japanese interpretation of English-style stews called "curry". These use Indian blends of spices adapted to Japanese tastes, but most versions are sweeter and milder than they are "hot". It's somewhat common, but not necessary, for people to enjoy extra spicy curries. But curries have a status that is vaguely foreign, like tikka masala or mulligatawny soup in England, even if both are really "local" innovations. Even if you're Japanese, you may not quite consider curry as a spicy "Japanese" food.

Additionally, you may notice even in English, the notion of "spice" isn't perfectly attached to the notion of "spicy." If I use cloves or ginger in something, it might be "spiced" with spices, but perhaps isn't considered spicy.

  • A very good answer. I really expected my question to garner clarity rather than debate but I thought culinary and/or botanical definitions would reveal a yes or no and it turned out to be fraught with subtle linguistic issues and personal views. But "it's complicated" is sometimes the best answer. So thanks! (-: – hippietrail Oct 4 '12 at 3:25

Spice is defined in the Chambers 21st Century English Dictionary as:

spice noun 1 any of various aromatic or pungent substances, such as pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, etc that are derived from plants and used for flavouring food, eg in sauces, curries, etc, and for drinks such as punch.

While wasabi is sometimes added directly to food during cooking these days, traditionally it is made into a paste and served as an optional side dish - a condiment, as Mischa says.

However, while it is not truly a spice, that's not to say it is not spicy, which has the colloquial meaning of not only tasting of spices, but also tasting hot, like, say, black pepper or chilli peppers (though the latter is hot for a different reason - mustard oil as opposed to capsaicin).

So it depends on what you mean by spicy. A curry might be spicy, as in tasting of spices, but still be mild in terms of heat.

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    Black pepper is interesting, as it is classed as a spice, but is also used as a condiment. Blame the Romans. – ElendilTheTall Oct 2 '12 at 11:54
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    Fresh Horseradish is used in things like fish mousse, not just as a condiment :) – ElendilTheTall Oct 2 '12 at 12:12
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    Horseradish is neither a spice nor a condiment. It is an industrial nasal fumigation agent for use only by medical professionals and masochists. – Sobachatina Oct 2 '12 at 14:06
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    @Sobachatina You girl. Roast beef is nothing with horseradish sauce. – ElendilTheTall Oct 2 '12 at 14:44
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    Horseradish and wasabi both clear the sinuses like nobody's business and are used as condiments but don't feel particularly spicy in the mouth. (love your comment Sobachatina! Made me laugh out loud!) – Kristina Lopez Oct 2 '12 at 15:21

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