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Spice it up, with a little or a lot of heat

by Rick Lapointe

Globally the most common spice or flavor-enhancing element used today is the chili pepper. Chilies are used raw, cooked or pickled as a vegetable or dried (ground into a powder or reconstituted) as a seasoning in almost every corner of the world. There are thousands of varieties of chili peppers employed in nearly every ethnic cuisine. One can’t imagine Indian, Thai or African food without the heat-packing chili — and Japanese cuisine is not without it either.

The chili pepper, belonging to the same horticultural family as the potato, eggplant and tomato, was domesticated in the Americas 2,000 years ago. It was called pepper in English because the chili’s heat reminded early New World explorers of black pepper, the berry spice that they had set out to find. Along with black pepper, chilies are one of the only plants to provide the heat so sought after by cooks to enhance their food. Easily grown and adaptable to local climes, the chili quickly spread to all the inhabited continents 500 years ago.

Chili peppers are often just called peppers to avoid confusion with the dishes that go by the name chili (from the Native American ch’illi). The scientific name capsicum, describing all chilies, is from the Greek kapato, to bite.

The heat element of chilies is found in the essential oil, capsaicin, which is primarily concentrated in the whitish ribs that hold the seeds. Removing the ribs, and the seeds with them, before preparing chilies considerably reduces the fire. This fire is measured in Scoville units, a scale developed by a chili aficionado and scientist in 1912. Chilies may be placed into five heat-ranked categories: sweet (bell peppers); mild (paprika); medium (jalapenos); hot (cayenne and Tabasco); and very hot (habaneros, Scotch bonnets and Thai chilies).

Introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese sailors, hot chilies quickly spread across the entire Japanese archipelago. Later, during the Meiji Era, sweet bell pepper types were introduced from the Americas. There are basically four varieties of chilies used in Japan today.

The piman is a sweet variety, similar to the American bell pepper, but it’s often smaller with thinner flesh. P iman comes from the French piment, an alternate word for the currently used poivron.P iman are generally green but may also be red, yellow, orange or purple. Red p iman are sometimes mistakenly called papurika in Japan, but they are not the mildly hot paprika pepper grown principally in Hungary. P iman rate zero on the Scoville scale (no heat) and are widely used in many home-cooked dishes, though they are not found in traditional washoku.

Shishito, however, are small, wrinkled sweet-to-mild peppers used extensively as a garnish in traditional Japanese food. The name comes from a character used to connote chili (but actually refers to Korea, China or foreign things in general) and shishi (it was thought that the chili resembles the shriveled face of the mythical dancing lion). Called aoto(green chili) in the Kansai area, the shishito is harvested before it becomes a bright-red, fully ripened chili. The shishito is either grilled or fried to garnish grilled dishes, or coated in koromo and used to embellish a plate of tempura. Fushimi chili peppers are long, thin peppers and may be sweet (Fushimiama) or medium-hot (Fushimikara). Grown in the Fushimi area near the city of Kyoto, these chili peppers may be used like shishito or they may be pickled, stir-fried or sauteed and then dressed. Sweet Fushimi are also called amanagato — long, sweet chilies.

Finally, the only chili in Japanese cuisine to be dried and ground is the takanotsume, called so because it looks like the claw (tsume) of the hawk (taka). These little hot-to-very hot chilies (up to 100,000 Scoville units) are close to the Tabasco chili, called chili Japones in Mexico and sometimes referred to generically in Japanese professional kitchens as akatogarashi (red chili pepper). Used whole to flavor simmered dishes or to spice up pickles, the dried takanotsume is best after the seeds have been removed and then lightly singed to give it a smoky flavor. Dried and ground takanotsume become the ichimi (one flavor) chili powder used to heat up hot udon.Blended with several other spices, it plays a vital role in shichimi (seven flavors) powder that is found in soba shops.

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Amanagato no amakara-itame

This is a simple dish that uses the long, sweet peppers from Fushimi. Remove the stem, split the pepper and remove the seeds and ribs before cutting up the chilies. This dish works as a good side dish at breakfast with a grilled fish or as a tsumami snack food when drinking beer on a hot summer evening.

You may substitute shishito if amanagato are not available.

200 grams amanagato (or shishito)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)
4 tablespoons sugar ichimi to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)

1) Wash and clean the amanagato. Cut in half lengthwise and then in half again across the grain.

2) Place 1 tablespoon oil in a medium pan and saute the amanagato over medium heat.

3) Once cooked, add the shoyu and sugar and cook until the liquid is reduced.

4) Add ichimi.

5) Serve warm or chill and refrigerate to serve later. Makes four portions.