You know how your sushi always comes with a little glob of powdery green wasabi? You know how you sometimes put a little too much on your sushi and it sends a rush of cold fire up your sinuses, rendering you a helpless shell of a person?
I’ve got bad news for you: that stuff wasn’t wasabi.
The stuff that sucker-punched your nasal passages was just your run-of-the-mill processed horseradish, green-ified by artificial coloring. The real-deal, genuine wasabi root is incredibly rare and, in most parts of the world, incredibly expensive. It takes several years for a wasabi root to grow before it can even think about being harvested, and it only grows in specific climates and altitudes. And even in ideal conditions, wasabi is difficult to cultivate. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that your average sushi-lover will go their whole life without ever tasting the real thing.
The good news: Alishan (or “Ali Mountain,” 阿里山) in Taiwan is a place where you can get yourself a genuine, fresh wasabi root.
I know. Those things look like freaking mandrakes from Harry Potter. But that’s wasabi for you, and Alishan is one of the few places in the world where you can get it on the cheap—I bought a freshly harvested root for the equivalent of $7 USD. Amazing, right?
The funny thing, though, is that Alishan has so much more to offer that you may totally forget to buy wasabi while you’re there. That’s not hyperbole—I actually almost forgot to buy wasabi before we left because there was so much to do and see.
If you can believe it, wasabi isn’t the only cibarious experience you need to have here. Another huge draw—and what Alishan is actually famous for—is that this is the location of some of the finest tea plantations in the world, specializing in high-quality Taiwanese oolong tea. The mountain is dotted with tea shops where you can sit and enjoy a tea-tasting ceremony, and you would be mad to not pick up a bag of tea there. I’m a frighteningly voracious tea drinker, so I may have bought and hoarded tea like it was going out of style.
Just in case getting top-quality tea and wasabi doesn’t satisfy your hedonistic needs, there are cute shops and markets that offer everything from typical tourist tchotchkes to specialty foods and handicrafts.
“But Sharon,” I hear you saying, “I’m not into buying things, and I just want to feed my soul by experiencing the unadulterated beauty of nature.”
Well, fine, you dirty hippie. Alishan also has breathtaking views of unspoiled mountain scenery, and a lovely trail for some mild hiking through a forest so beautiful, I’m struggling to come up with a clever simile for it.
There’s also an old railroad and train station that is no longer in use. It’s a lovely place to explore, nestled in the mountain, and nearby is a restaurant that sells hot lunches served in old-fashioned “train-style” boxes made of real wood.
As you head down the winding road, it’s not unusual for a cloud to casually come rolling over you—you are, after all, on a very, very tall mountain. It’s a totally surreal experience; I felt like the world had stopped turning, because everything was so calm and cool and still, and when I came to the edge of a ridge and couldn’t see past the fence, I felt like I was peering out at the end of the world.
Conclusion: Alishan is amazing, end of story. There is something for everyone and every view on the mountain is drop-dead beautiful to boot. Although we only went there on a day trip, there are many hotels and cozy bed-and-breakfasts. If you’re at all interested or have insomnia and need something to read, I recommend reading the WikiTravel article on Alishan, as well as the Wikipedia article.
Oh, and you may be wondering what we ended up doing with our prized wasabi root. We took it to a top-quality Japanese restaurant in Tainan, where the chef grated it and presented it alongside some of the finest sashimi you could possibly get—because that is how we do.
And in case you’re wondering what it tastes like, it’s a totally different culinary experience from your fake horseradish paste. It has a milder, more fragrant flavor, and instead of Hulk-smashing its way through your nose, it gives you an affectionate, fleeting love-nip on your tongue. As far as pain-inducing spices go, fresh wasabi is utterly delightful.
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