Black sesame seeds, dried satsuma citrus peel, roasted red pepper, dried red pepper, sanshō Japanese pepper, poppy seeds, hemp seeds … the seven ingredients are rhythmically poured by the spoonful into a wooden bowl and deftly stirred to produce shichimi tōgarashi, a spice mix beloved for its colorful and exquisitely pungent blend of flavors.
The idea of combining seven “lucky” spices originated in Edo (present-day Tokyo), where the mix gained popularity as a condiment for soba, a staple noodle dish for townsfolk in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Ever since, the blend has enhanced meals of all sorts, from udon noodles, yakitori and gyūdon beef-topped rice to pasta and other Western dishes.
Long-standing establishments known for their spice mixes can also be found in places like Nagano and Kyoto prefectures, but the shichimi (seven delicious flavors) pioneer is Yagenbori, in Asakusa.
The shop’s famous product was created in 1625 by founder Karashiya Tokuemon, who lived in Edo’s Yagenbori district (now part of Higashinihonbashi), which was home to many doctors and medicine wholesalers. Inspired by local recipes for herbal medicine, Tokuemon decided to incorporate their health benefits into his spice mix. For nearly 400 years his original formula has remained relatively unchanged, with red pepper believed to stimulate the appetite, sanshō to alleviate stomach ailments, and poppy and hemp seeds to soothe the nerves.
Yagenbori’s selling method also dates back to Edo days, when vendors strolled the streets carrying boxes of spices and mixing them on the spot for customers, all the while touting their virtues in a singsong sales pitch.
Prepackaged spices are sold at Yagenbori today, but it is the fresh mixes that taste best. Three basic versions — the standard “medium hot” blend popular for its balance of spice and flavor; “superhot,” with more red pepper; and “mildly hot,” with less — can be customized to your liking.
A little sanshō, with its numbing pungency, can go a long way, but a dollop of black sesame seeds will add savor and extra citrus peel is good for a touch of fruity aroma. Undesired ingredients can, of course, be omitted.
Shop regulars line up for their favorite blends — an elderly woman requests “my usual superhot,” and a man in his 30s orders “one between super and medium hot, with extra sanshō.”
The notion that healthy eating is the best medicine long predates the import of Western medical thought into Japan. A sprinkle of shichimi enhances Japanese diets today no less than it did centuries ago.
Yagenbori’s main store is located at Asakusa 1-28-3, Taito-ku, Tokyo; weekdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., weekends and hols. till 7 p.m. Its Metro-dori store is located at Asakusa 1-32-13, Taito-ku, Tokyo; weekdays and Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Fri., Sat., day before hols. till 7 p.m.; yagenbori.jp; 03-3626-7716; both are open year-round. This is the first installment in a four-part series on shops in Tokyo where you can “mix” your own products.