Photo: Cierra Pedro

Culinary Counterfeits You Might Not Know You’re Eating

From wasabi to balsamic vinegar, there's nothing like the real thing.

One of the joys of fine dining is discovering new ingredients. You may feel more mixed emotions, however, when you discover that some ingredients you’ve grown to love are actually counterfeits. Here are some of the worst offenders.

Wasabi. Photo: Cierra Pedro

Wasabi 

The ultimate sushi condiment comes from the rhizome (root stem) of a plant grown in Japan and the Pacific Northwest that is grated at your table, usually on a sharkskin paddle. If that doesn’t sound like the stuff you’ve eaten, it’s because most Americans are familiar with a powdered substitute made from horseradish and green food coloring that’s reconstituted into a paste at the restaurant and packs a heartier kick. The reason for this imitation is simple: cost. Real wasabi can cost close to $100 per pound, while the powdered horseradish stuff runs less than $2 per pound. There’s also a mid-level relish often sold as “fresh” wasabi that consists of stems and root tendrils from true wasabi plants mixed with horseradish and other ingredients.

Other Mama’s Dan Krohmer, who uses a combination of real and powder, doesn’t have a problem with the cheap stuff for most sushi dinners. “The majority of Americans started with the powdered stuff,” he says. “We’re used to it. And we’re used to the spice level, which makes an impact.” For those who want a totally genuine experience, however, check out Chinatown’s Yui Edomae Sushi or Morimoto Las Vegas in MGM Grand. Just be prepared to pay for it.

White truffle oil. Photo: Cierra Pedro

Truffle 

Truffles—particularly the white and black varieties harvested in Europe during the winter months—are among the most sought-after gourmet ingredients. But because they can’t be farmed, and harvesters must rely on pigs or dogs to find them growing naturally underground, they’re extremely expensive. This combination of popularity and scarcity has led to the creation of various low-budget truffle oils and salts, which you’ll find in everything from potato chips to mac ’n’ cheese in casual and semi-casual restaurants. Don’t be fooled, however. These usually contain absolutely no actual truffle. And their biggest attraction is their ability to replicate the product’s signature pungent scent, which can numb you to the beauty of the real thing.

“Unfortunately, the general public has come to enjoy the overwhelming aroma,” Mina Group vice president Gary FX LaMorte says of the cheap stuff. “This ratchets up the expectations for real product and actually minimizes the guest’s enjoyment of [the] fresh.”

Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese 

This classic Italian hard cheese is prized for its nutty flavor and the crunchy crystals that form during the aging process. To legally bear the label in Europe, it has to be made within certain Italian provinces under strict guidelines. And only after a least 12 months of aging will a special consortium brand a certification of authenticity onto the rind of each wheel.

Less expensive cheeses made in this style, however, are marketed under the title Parmesan. And many are quite good. Brian Massie of Clique Hospitality says these more common cheeses, which most Americans grew up on, “have a purpose and a place” in Italian dining, adding that, “they’re nostalgic to me as well.” But few people will argue that, when placed side by side, the quality of the real deal should be obvious to everyone.

To experience real Parmigiano-Reggiano used in a unique manner, visit Clique’s Salute in Red Rock Resort. Among the many ways Massie offers it is in the house’s signature pasta: a fairly basic fettucine with vodka sauce that is finished tableside inside a hollowed-out wheel of the Italian import, with the chef scraping the heated cheese from the interior and adding it to the pasta.

Balsamic Vinegar 

This fancy Italian product has given way to yet another bastardized pretender. Traditional balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale in Italian) can hail from either Modena or Reggio Emilia, and starts as wine from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes with bacteria added. It’s aged in a series of wood barrels, moving from larger ones to smaller ones over a period of at least 12 years. (Some super-expensive varieties age as long as 100 years.) The process evaporates water from the mix and concentrates the sugars to produce a thick, sweet syrupy delight.

“What makes balsamic balsamic,” says Brett Ottolenghi of Artisanal Foods, “is that balance of sweetness and acidity. But then of course, in the rest of the world,” Ottolenghi he adds, “we all want to taste balsamic, but we needed something cheaper.” The response has been twofold. First, there are condiment-grade balsamics (condimento balsamico) made traditionally but aged for a shorter period and without the oversight of a consortium. The second type of substitutes are commercial-grade products. Often aged just two months in stainless steel barrels, these are basically just simple wine vinegar treated with thickeners and artificial flavors and colors. And while they may be OK on a salad, they’re nothing like the real deal.

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