In the hunt for vegetarian-friendly fare in Japan, it’s easy to forget that what often makes the dish is not the main ingredient but the seasoning.
I was reminded of this on a recent shinkansen ride. With 10 minutes to board my train, and it being dinner time, I picked up a few items to eat along the way. Steering clear of the many bento (boxed lunch) stands (the search for the elusive vegetarian bento is one I’ll have to save for another time), I found some skewered vegetables behind one glass case. Easy enough, I ordered some potatoes, brussels sprouts, bamboo and a yellow tofu-looking thing (which I later found out was not tofu but namafu, or wheat starch).
Settled in my seat, I unwrapped the plastic containers, finding also two unassuming little packets of seasoning and one pouch of sauce. Being a flavor fiend, without hesitation I ripped open the packets and sprinkled gratuitously. As I bit into the first grilled potato, however, I stopped. This was possibly the most delicious bite of spud I’d ever had in my life.
Though it was a simple grilled potato, what had made it so divinely tasty was the packet of green seasoning. Oh my, what a delightful tang. I tasted the powder by itself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming up this experience: a woodsy, tart, peppery taste. I was hooked. I snapped a photo of the kanji on the packet, and the very next day scoured the supermarket and found my dream spice: sansho. Sansho translates simply as “Japanese pepper,” and it had been under my nose this whole time.
Japan offers a plethora of spices and seasonings to match its cuisine, but here are a few of my favorite staples.
Sansho, it turns out, is one ingredient of shichimi, Japan’s pervasive “seven-flavor” spice concoction. Made with red pepper, sansho, orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, seaweed and, depending on the region, hemp seeds, shiso (perilla) or ginger. Usually shichimi sits out on the table in little bamboo or gourd containers at noodle shops. The color and mix varies from place to place, but it is essentially a mild chili topping with a bit of zest. A bowl of udon noodles is not complete without a dash or two of this on top.
Furikake is a condiment to consider; this refers to any number of dried spices or herbs usually meant as rice topping. Furikake can be a bit tricky, as many varieties contain katsuo fish grindings. Stay away from those that include bonito or okaka, as these are other words for katsuo. If you can find one that contains just dried shiso (probably with a bit of salt, sugar and vinegar), this one is delicious over freshly steamed rice. Other options are goma-shio (sesame and salt), particularly good over red bean rice; and aonori (seaweed).
There are of course many more flavorings to experiment with — perhaps even another magical spice on par with sansho awaits discovery — so go forth and experiment . Once you find your favorite essentials, you will certainly have countless dishes to keep you seasoned and satisfied.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.jacobs-music.com.
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