Shopping for vegetables in Japan can be rather confusing, even if you get past the initial language barrier. For instance, why are green bell peppers called “pīman,” and red or yellow ones “papurika?” And then there are the many type of chili peppers, which are known collectively as tōgarashi.
There’s a reason for this, though: The different names are clues as to when each type of pepper was introduced to Japan. Hot and sweet peppers are both members of the capsicum family, and originally came from South and Central America. While there are various theories as to when they were introduced to Japan, an early 19th-century document states that the Portuguese first brought chili peppers to Japan in the mid-16th century. Originally chili peppers were called nanban koshō, which literally means “peppercorns from southern foreign lands.” This was eventually superseded by the current name of tōgarashi — karashi (mustard) from China (Tang).
Initially, the spicy little peppers were not eaten. Instead, their seeds were used to grow decorative plants, or the peppers themselves were inserted into tabi (traditional nonstretchy socks or foot coverings) to keep the toes warm.
By the mid- to late 17th century, red chili peppers were a part of everyday cuisine, used in condiments like shichimi tōgarashi, a mixture of dried ground chili peppers with sesame seeds, citrus peel and other ingredients. The most popular variety of hot pepper in Japan, called taka no tsume (literally, “dragon’s nails”) — a synonym for tōgarashi — was probably cultivated around this time, too.
Sweet bell peppers didn’t enter the Japanese diet until the modern era, although they were used as decorative plants prior to that. Green bell peppers came from the United States in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) and were eventually given the name piman, derived from the French word “piment” — which actually means chili pepper rather than sweet pepper (known as “poivron” in French). This is possibly because French cuisine was the most influential type of Western cuisine at the time.
However, green bell peppers only became widely used in Japan after World War II. Around the mid- to late 1960s they began being considered an everyday vegetable, and eventually became so ubiquitous that they have the dubious distinction of being selected as the vegetable Japanese children hate the most, year after year. The slight bitterness in green peppers is due to their immaturity, which lessens as they ripen.
The last kind of pepper introduced to Japan is the colorful red or yellow type — which are just ripe versions of the green bell pepper. Quite a few people in Japan mistakenly believe that they’re another vegetable altogether, and the different name for them — papurika — doesn’t help. This name again betrays the peppers’ origins: In the early 1990s, importation rules for fresh produce changed, so the Netherlands started exporting vegetables to Japan. Bell peppers are called paprika in Dutch, so that was the name given to these big, bright peppers, partially to differentiate them from those nasty (as far as kids were concerned) green peppers — although some people do call them “colored pīman,” too.
Whatever their name or color, peppers are in season right now. The recipe this month combines them with eggplants, another summer vegetable, for a quick and hearty stir fry that’s great with plain white rice.
Serves 2 to 4
- 4 small Japanese eggplants
- 2 small green peppers
- 1/2 of a large red pepper
- 1/2 of a large yellow pepper (or use 1 large red or yellow pepper)
- 200 grams ground pork or pork/beef mix
- 1 tablespoon of sake
- 1 piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons worth)
- 2 small dried chili peppers (taka no tsume), finely crumbled
- 2 tablespoons of red miso
- 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon of mirin or 1/2 tablespoon of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of dark soy sauce
- vegetable oil for cooking
Cut the eggplants into small bite-sized pieces. De-seed and cut up the peppers to the same size.
Sprinkle the ground meat with the sake, mix and set aside.
Combine the miso, sesame oil, mirin or sugar, and soy sauce, and set aside.
Put about three tablespoons of vegetable oil into a large frying pan or wok. Shallow fry the eggplant until it has browned and is soft. Drain and set aside.
Add one tablespoon of oil, the ginger and chili peppers to the same pan and stir fry for a minute.
Add the ground meat and brown.
Put in the peppers and stir fry for two-three minutes.
Cover the pan with a lid and steam-cook for three-four minutes until the peppers are crisp but tender.
Return the eggplants to the pan, and stir in the miso sauce.
Serve immediately, or cool and use in bentō (boxed lunch).
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