Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

Hot in the shade of Japan's tiny pepper-tree leaves

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

In traditional Japanese cuisine, spiciness and zing are provided through yakumi garnishes — fragrant herbs, spices and vegetables added to a dish after it’s plated. Not only do yakumi enhance the flavors and visual appeal of a dish, they’re also believed to have health benefits such as aiding digestion — even the word “yakumi” literally means “medicine flavor.” These garnishes are also used to emphasize seasonality, and the quintessential springtime yakumi is kinome, the young leaf clusters of the sanshō (Japanese pepper) tree.

The prickly-stemmed sanshō is a deciduous tree that’s found growing in the wild throughout Japan with the exception of Okinawa. There’s evidence that it has been used as food or for medicinal purposes for a long time; many earthenware pots from the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.) have been discovered by archaeologists to contain sanshō seeds. Cultivation of these pepper trees did not start until the beginning of the 17th century, when a variety that yielded large, fragrant berries was imported from the Korean Peninsula to a place called Asakura in current day Hyogo Prefecture. Named the Asakura sanshō, this is still the main cultivated variety today. Large-scale sanshō tree farming was initiated during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Incidentally, although sanshō (Zanthoxylum piperitum) is closely related to the Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum, called kaboku-zanshō or hoa-jao in Japan), it’s a different plant.

Three parts of the sanshō tree are used in cooking: the leaves, flower buds and berries. The flower buds and the green immature berries are preserved in salt or simmered in soy sauce, sugar, mirin and other flavors (i.e. made into tsukudani), and the mature seed husks are dried and ground into a spice powder called kona-zanshō, which is essential in Japanese cooking. The leaves, kinome, besides being used as a bright green garnish on grilled fish and meat, floated on soups and so on, are also ground up into a paste and mixed with miso to make a piquant sauce. There’s a commonly held belief that holding a kinome leaf cluster between cupped hands and clapping the hands together is the best way to bring out its fragrance, although I’ve talked to several professional chefs who have said that was not necessarily done. In any case, bruising kinome leaves does help to release their oils.

Like any herb with an assertive scent and flavor, kinome may take some getting used to. It has a citrus-like fragrance (it belongs to the citrus family, botanically speaking) and a fresh green flavor with a slight bite. If you’re new to kinome, you may want to use it sparingly to start with. Like fresh coriander, kinome can become quite addictive.

Fresh kinome is usually only available in stores in the spring, but if you want to harvest fresh leaves year round, consider getting your own sanshō tree. They grow to about 3 meters in height and are fairly easy to take care of if you just want the leaves. Harvesting berries may require a bit more care and a green thumb.

The recipe here is for a classic springtime dish that combines kinome with another seasonal ingredient, bamboo shoots. You can buy precooked vacuum packed bamboo shoots, but if you can get fresh, tender shoots here’s how to boil them: peel off the tough outer skins, cut off the knobby base, and slice the tip off diagonally. Cover them with water in a pot, and either a cup of nuka (rice bran) or four tablespoons of uncooked rice. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently until a skewer goes through the shoots easily. Leave them in the cooking water for several hours before eating. Optionally remove the tender inner skin layers of the bamboo shoot, which are edible, to use in another recipe.


Recipe: Bamboo shoots with kinome miso

To serve as a kobachi (small side dish)

Ingredients

  • 1 small boiled bamboo shoot
  • 400 ml dashi stock
  • 1 tablespoon light (usukuchi) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons white miso
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 10-20 kinome (Japanese pepper) leaf clusters

Directions

Slice the bamboo shoot into bite-sized pieces. Place in a pan with the dashi and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, add the soy sauce and leave until cool.

Reserve one or two kinome leaf clusters to use as decoration. Take the tiny leaves off each kinome leaf cluster and discard the thin stems (use more or less kinome to taste). Place the leaves in a suribachi (Japanese grinding bowl) or mortar, and grind into a paste. Add the miso, sugar and vinegar, plus one to two teaspoons of the stock the bamboo shoots are in to form a sauce.

Mix the bamboo shoots gently with the sauce. Arrange on a plate or in a bowl, and decorate with the reserved kinome.

Note: You can substitute sweet Saikyo miso for the white miso and sugar.

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