The Japanese spice shelf is treasure trove for the adventurous foodie. Let's start with shichimi. It is the popular spicy condiment for noodle dishes and nabe hotpot dishes literally means the ‘seven-taste pepper’. Often it is simply abbreviated to shichimi. It is frequently sprinkled onto hot soba and udon noodle dishes and soups, and yakitorigrilled chicken and other poultry dishes. As with yuzu kosho (see below) this gives the lie to the fact that Japanese food is never spicy. Rarely so in and of itself, perhaps, but add some shichimi and see!
What is Shichimi? We provide the lowdown on the Japanese spice shelf
Also known as Japanese 7 Spice, it is traditionally composed of togarashi the hot red pepper element, sansho, citrus zest- usually of yuzu citron or mikan tangerine and smaller amounts of kurogoma black and shirogoma white sesame seeds (counted as one), keshinomi poppy seeds, hemp seeds and aonori green laver seaweed. Some devotees demand it includes benibana shushi safflower seeds.
All components are ground together to a coarse texture, and at traditional shichimi dealers, you can choose the ratio of ingredients to suit your personal tastes. Togarashi selling has also long been the domain of tekiya, the small-time semi-gangsters who ply their trade at shrine festivals, even today. If you plan to visit Kyoto, drop by the Kyoto Handicraft Center in Okazaki to try their shichimi-mixing workshop.
Yagenbori Shichimi Togarashi have been selling the spice from their shop in Tokyo’s Asakusa district for 400 years. Visit their website (Japanese only) here. The two other merchants in the triumvirate of ‘shichimi ancients’ are Shichimiya Honpo, in business since 1655, near Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, and Yawataya Isogoro, founded in 1720 in Oma-cho near Zenkoji-dera temple in Nagano. Traditionally the spice comes served in square, rectangular or gourd-shaped bamboo boxes. These make good souvenirs as they are portable, inexpensive, and pretty stylish.
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What is Yuzu?
Yuzu is an aromatic citrus fruit, usually yellow or green. It is a major ingredient in ponzu and is squeezed or grated onto fish dishes. Its zest is often added to soups and to soba tsuyu dipping sauce. Kochi Prefecture produces half of the nation’s yuzu, with Umajimura especially famed for its yuzu and ponzu.
Yuzu: Japanese Citron
The yuzu ripens from autumn to early winter, turning from the green aoyu to yellow kiyuzu. The kiyuzu skin can be hollowed out, filled, and teamed, with for example, crab meat, spring onions, mitsuba trefoil or Japanese wild chervil and shiitake mushrooms in yuzu-no-kamayaki. Yuzu is, in our humble opinion, one of Japan's most fabulous flavors.
The sudachi, a relative of the yuzu, is a small, sharply flavoured citrus, and is often used for its juice. It is synonymous with Tokushima Prefecture. Kabosu is another sharp citrus, which is normally used in sunomono vinegared food. It is largely cultivated in Oita Prefecture.
What is Yuzu Kosho?
This is one of Japan’s great, unheralded local tastes. Yuzu kosho is a seasoning paste made from a mixture of togarashi chilli peppers, yuzu rind, and salt. The ingredients are mashed together and allowed to ferment. The result is a rich, fiery citrus-filled condiment that goes brilliantly with soups, chicken dishes, and even oden hotchpotch. Bon Appetit recently described it as 'the secret weapon condiment chefs are putting on everything'. We've known that for years.
Yuzu Kosho Yuzu Pepper Paste
Generally kosho means black pepper, but on the southern island of Kyushu where yuzu kosho originated, it is the dialect phrase for chillies. Two types are used, green and red, with each resulting in that colored paste. Green is the most common.
Most yuzu kosho is produced in Kyushu, though Kochi Prefecture has its own version. Only relatively recently has it been produced commercially and reached supermarket shelves across the nation. It was always traditionally a product made in the home for family consumption. If you can still find some homemade yuzu kosho grab the chance!
Fukuoka and Oita Prefectures both claim the bragging rights for who invented it. One story even has it being created by yamabushi mountain ascetics on sacred Mount Hiko, which straddles the border of those two prefectures.