Sansho and Togarashi | Spicing up your palate

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.

Wild picked Sansho at the local market
Wild picked Sansho at the local market.  You can recognize them by their lively bright green, berry-like pods that completely cover comparatively delicate stems.

 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.

Sansho leaves
Sansho leaves or Kinome are the small serrated leaves seen here. They are used as a garnish and a flavoring in Japanese cooking. Kinome leaves have a minty aroma and flavor but distinguished by that lingering heat of the Sansho 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.

Pickled male Sansho flowers: absolutely amazing

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.

Hida Sansho
Hida Sansho shopfront. The small factory is located on the left of the building. This is Kazuhiko’s home too. He even has a R and D production kitchen to innovate on new products.
Kazuhiko san brought us out to his farm to show us how the Sansho trees and the berries looked like.
Kazuhiko san brought us out to his farm to show us how the Sansho trees and the berries looked like. The farm is in the Hida area, 800 m high with good water source.
Sansho trees
Sansho trees. We were told that by Kazuhiko san that the sansho is grown from seeds and it takes 4-5 years to know which is a female/male tree.
Sansho berries
Sansho berries
These are young sansho berries picked in June when they are still soft, and marinated with salt. These tasted amazing, similar to capers, but with a tangy tingling sensation.
These are young sansho berries picked in June when they are still soft, and marinated with salt. These tasted amazing, similar to capers, but with a tangy tingling sensation.
The sansho berries would be ground upon order, making it the old way with a millstone and a special millet
The sansho seeds would be ground upon order, making it the old way with a millstone and a special millet. The factory has this great citrusy lingering smell which I absolutely loved. As this is a small operations, everything is done by hand. They process about 3okg each time. I was told that every 10 kg of sansho seeds milled, they yield only 3 kg. No wonder, this is another highly prized item with a hefty price tag in the range of USD300/kg.
Hida Sansho
Hida Sansho packed into little canisters. 30g for 360 yen! I suppose a little goes a long way. Apparently, there was a TV programme in Japan that did an experiment putting sansho into the mouths of the experiment subjects, then letting these people try sashimi or tofu. The result was that without additional seasoning like shoyu or salt, the taste of the food became stronger, adding a new charm when consuming commonly eaten foods.

Innovative ways to enjoy Sansho

Kazuhiko san and his wife prepared some foods using sansho as a seasoning.

Hida sansho
A sprinkle of sansho peppers on cheese adds a new refreshing flavour to the cheese.
Hida Sansho
A sprinkling of the sansho powder made the potato chips addictive and we could not stop till every single piece was eaten.
Hida Sansho
Who would have thought of having a lemon sansho butter pound cake. This was made by Kazuhiko san’s wife as another innovative to enjoy Sansho peppers. I would have preferred the sansho taste to be more pronounced and it was fun to discuss how we could make this better.

Shichimi Togarashi

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.

Standing next to me, the President of Yawataya, Yutaka san together with the chef and landlady of Zenkoji Monzensaryo Yayoiza, serving traditional Shinano cuisine at the Zenkoji temple area
Standing next to me, the President of Yawataya, Yutaka san together with the chef and landlady of Zenkoji Monzensaryo Yayoiza, serving traditional Shinano cuisine at the Zenkoji temple area. We loved the innovative food and the presentation here.
Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya Isogoro at the Daimon-cho store. They offer a wide assortment of shichimi in tin cans, portable sachets of different sizes, gift boxes, lacquerware containers in gourd shaped. There is also a range of shichimi oils, infused extra virgin olive oils, ponzu sauces and cell-phone charms shaped like miniature cans. This cans actually can be filled with shichimi so you can sprinkle onto your foods. The reason for the small packaging is to preserve freshness. It is said that after the package is opened and exposed to air, flavour gradually fades. So it is encouraged to by a little at a time and to use it as soon as possible after opening.
Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya started selling shichimi in cans in the Taisho era. For a long time, the symbol has been a tin can featuring the word “shichimi” boldly painted in Kanji along with pictures of a chili pepper and Zenkoji’s main temple.
Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya Isogoro: Shichimi Togarashi can be used as a garnishing condiment spice at the table, or, in recipes in the kitchen.
Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya Isogoro: Once a year, the familiar Zenkoji design is changed and a new limited edition design becomes available. This was to commemorate the new Shinkasen

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.

Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya Isogoro: Shichimi with added yuzu.
Yawataya Isogoro
Yawataya Isogoro: Another special blend

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.

Yawataya Isogoro
The restaurant/cafe at the Daimon-cho store is cosy and modern at the same time








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