Spicing up your palate
Japanese food stresses the freshness and simplicity of cooking and ingredients alike, so ingredients are usually not smeared with a huge amount of sauces. They prefer subtlety so anything added to complement the food would only be a sprinkle and should never be so strong as to overwhelm the main dish but to raise it to a different level. At Japanese restaurants, typically on the table, there would always be condiments used to flavour our foods. Two very common such condiments are sansho and togarashi. They are usually sprinkled on true comfort everyday meals such as unagi dishes, rice dishes or nabe dishes, bringing the dish to a new level, bursting with intense spicy or tangy effects that are high pleasurable.
One of the great joys of travelling is enjoying foods from a totally different culture, heading to the local market to let yourself be carried away by the sights and aromas of foods you may have never encountered. This trip to Japan, I am souper stoked to up the ante by visiting the farms where the produce is grown, speak to the passionate farmers about their beloved produce and see first hand how things are done. We had the privilege to visit a sansho farm at Hida and was also hosted by the togarashi purveyor in Nagano.
What is Sansho and Togarashi?
Despite its name sansho pepper is not actually a pepper. I guess you might call it a spice with some peculiar traits. It’s earthy and tangy with a bit of lemon. When put directly on your tongue, you’ll notice a sort of tingling sensation. The intense spicy flavour exploded in my mouth ending with a pleasurable (and surprising) tongue-numbing effect. Sansho is a particularly useful deciduous tree, the prickly ash, that belongs to the tangerine family and grows wild in Japan (as well as in some parts of China and Korea), and almost every part of this aromatic and versatile bushy plant is edible. It has been in used by the Japanese people for more than 3000 years.
It is closely related to Sichuan pepper but has more pronounced citrus flavors. Most people have a common misconception that Sansho and Sichuan peppers are the same and can therefore be interchanged. This is simply untrue. In addition to their differences in flavours, Sansho Japanese peppers also have some distinctive visual features. For instance, they have a deep green color unlike Sichuan peppers.
The Japanese love sansho in all its forms, and its subtle cuisine benefits from the pepper’s powerful, clean flavor. In the spring, the soft early growth, the two-inch ends of the branches — called kinome, literally meaning “tree shoots” — is gathered for its heady fragrance, refreshingly citrus-like flavor and visual beauty. You can spot kinome on top of simmered vegetables like fuki (butterbur) or takenoko (bamboo shoots), lending their heady fragrance to soups or garnishing full-flavored, intense dishes such as simmered tai (sea bream) heads. Kinome provides the perfect contrast to oily and rich foods, but they also taste wonderful with sashimi.
In early May, there is also a short-lived season for hana sansho (sansho flowers), which have a more intense spiciness than the leaves but are milder than the pods. They are also lovely to look at, populating delicate branches with a profuse display of bright green, tiny flowers. They can be added to nabemono (simmered dishes) to impart a wonderful and unique spiciness, or as garnishes to evoke the late spring season. They can be pickled too as seen below.
When the berries mature, they are way too bitter to consume, and are discarded. However, the seed pods are dried to make powdered sansho. Sansho is widely used to add a mild spiciness and rich fragrance to noodle dishes and grilled eel. The powder is an important component of shichimi-togarashi (seven spice powder) and the distinctive flavor, with more dimensions than simply hot (like red chili pepper), lends the popular spice mix that special Japanese touch.
Hida Sansho (35-1 Murakami, Okuhida Onsenkyo, Takayama-shi, GIFU 506-1431)
Hida Sansho is a small artisan company that has been producing “Sansho” Japanese pepper for the past 30 years since its foundation. We were hosted by owner Kazuhiko san and his wife. Hida’s sansho is characterized by its excellent aroma. It used to grow wild in the Hida region, which is blessed with mountains, soil, and water; however, it is now carefully preserved and grown by local people. Only sansho produced in a range of 5km (at an altitude between 100m and 800m above sea level) can give off this a strong fragrance. From the end of July to August, they would harvest the peppercorns by hand, dry them in the shade for 1-2 days, separate them into husks and seeds, and mill the seeds. Each step is performed wholeheartedly and by hand.
Innovative ways to enjoy Sansho
Kazuhiko san and his wife prepared some foods using sansho as a seasoning.
Togarashi, the Japanese word for “chiles,” is a group of condiments always including chiles to add flavour, spiciness and aroma. Shichimi togarashi is also called seven spice (shichi is “seven” in Japanese), because seven ingredients are generally used, similar to Chinese Five Spice Powder. Originally sold by herbal medicine shops in the 17th century, but today it is a popular food souvenir at some of Japan’s famous shrine festivals and tourist sites. It works well with fatty foods such as unagi, tempuras, shabu shabu, noodle dishes, and yakitori . The ingredients and proportions used will vary depending on the region, manufacturer, and cook.
The ingredients usually include items from the following list: Red pepper flakes (Bansho), White sesame seeds, Black sesame seeds, black hemp seeds or poppy seeds, Sansho (Japanese Pepper), Dark green dried seaweed flakes, Ginger, Rapeseed, Chimpi (dried mikan peel). The red pepper flakes are roasted to bring out its heat and flavour and sesame seeds is said to soften the heat of the pepper.
Shichimi Togarashi is sold already ground and mixed. Shichimi togarashi is known to be a remedy for colds and flu, and is also good for the stomach. Ichimi means “one taste”, and ichimi togarashi consists of just chilli pepper. In Japan, it is also now sold with the whole individual spices in a spice jar with a mill on top so that it can be ground “fresh.” There are a few exclusive shops in Japan that will mix up the Shichimi to your preference for ingredients and proportions. One such shop is Yawataya Isogoro, a Shichimi Togarashi institution founded since 270 years ago.
Yawataya Isogoro (83 Daimoncho, Nagano-shi, Nagano 380-0841)
The Yawataya Isogoro Company had its origins in the mid-18th century. Their shichimi has a well-balanced spicy taste and great aroma and is meant to have the disctinctive flavour reminiscent of the mountainous region of Shinsu. At that time, the northwest part of Nagano city, known as “Nishiyama”, was famous for the production of hemp and Japanese paper. Merchants carried these products to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and to most other regions of Japan. On their journeys throughout the country, the merchants bought food and daily necessities, and brought them back to sell in the environs of Zenkoji Temple as a side job. Some of the goods brought back by the merchants included shichimi togarashi. One such merchant was Kan’emon, the founder of the Yawataya Isogoro Company. He began selling shichimi togarashi in the grounds of Zenkoji Temple in 1736. The ingredients used by Yawataya Isogoro include medium strength chili peppers, sansho, ginger, richly flavored hemp seed, black sesame, dried orange peel and perilla.
The Nishiyama area was perfect for the production of six of the ingredients needed to make shichimi, except for dried mandarin orange peel. It was a famous hemp-producing area, so hemp seeds were easily available. Also, sansho pepper grew naturally in the surrounding mountains. Local farmers were easily able to grow the remaining ingredients, namely chili pepper, black sesame, ginger and perilla. Since dried products kept longer, the last ingredient, dried mandarin orange peel, could be collected and carried from Kamigata (the modern-day Kansai area).
We were hosted by the Komatsu san from the International Tourism Office at Nagano and we were honored to meet the President of Yawataya, Yutaka san. After dinner, he took us to his flagship store at Daimon-cho, a few minutes from the restaurant and showed us around although it was already past 9pm and the store was closed.
The individual ingredients at Yawataya Isogoro can be custom blended to allow customers to choose what goes into their blend. This is a clever way to enhance customer experience by seeing your personal blend made right in front of your eyes.
I loved the new approach to having a flagship store that has a restaurant/cafe where customers will get to enjoy dishes made with their products. They have developed recipe cards to teach customers how to enjoy the different blends that are sold.