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What Exactly Is Wasabi?

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Wasabi to sushi is like ketchup to fries, but with a much more pungent kick. However, wasabi is actually rarer than you may realize; there is a good chance you’ve actually never consumed real wasabi.

Officially named Wasabi japonica, the wasabi plant grows naturally in river bends in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand. Wasabi grows in wet areas, and attempting to recreate its environment can be very difficult—some experts consider it the hardest plant to grow commercially.

Real wasabi, until grated from the root, isn’t spicy. When grated in a circular, clockwise motion, a paste is formed and hot vapors are released, and traditional Japanese restaurants will grate fresh wasabi to order. Wasabi loses its strength after a mere fifteen to twenty minutes, so it needs to be served immediately after it's turned into a paste.

The “wasabi” consumed in the United States is very often an imposter: a dyed blend of horseradish powder and mustard, two similar roots that are far cheaper.Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the paste will contain just a smidgen of actual wasabi. (But wasabi loses its flavor once dried anyway, so that really does you no good.)

Wasabi tends to be difficult to grow and extremely expensive. A pound of wasabi can reach up to $100 (although, who can eat that much wasabi?). If you were to be served a small serving of wasabi alongside your sushi, you would need to pay about three to five dollars for the wasabi alone. Horseradish grows faster than the wasabi plant (wasabi takes up to three years to reach maturity), so, even in Japan, it is often used in place of the real thing. Only about 5% of the wasabi served at restaurants around the world is thought to be the real thing.

Actual wasabi is smoother tasting than the horseradish-mustard medley we commonly consume. Instead of creating a sensation in the tongue and mouth, real wasabi affects the nasal passages more.

If the heat of the wasabi is making you break out in cold sweats, you’re probably not consuming authentic wasabi. Some Asian markets sell genuine wasabi roots, ranging from eight to ten dollars. You’ll know it’s real with a price like that.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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