Food & Drink

The long and storied history of shichimi, Japan’s 'seven flavors' spice

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

Walk into any izakaya bar, yakitori or udon joint, sit yourself down and you’ll almost always find shichimi (“seven flavors”) on the table.

Although the foundation of shichimi is tōgarashi (chili pepper), as the seven in its name suggests, there’s six other elements to the mix, the ratios of which depends entirely on who is putting it together. As a general rule, there’s always sanshō (“Japanese pepper,” but really a member of the citrus family), kurogoma (black sesame seeds), chinpi (dried mikan orange peel) and asanomi (hemp seeds). Other common add-ins include aojiso (green perilla), shiso (regular perilla), shirogoma (white sesame seeds), keshitsubu (poppy seeds), aonori (green laver seaweed) and shōga (ginger).

The inclusion of hemp seeds might surprise you, given Japan’s strict drug laws — even possessing a small amount of cannabis can land you up to five years in prison. Nevertheless, the seed of the cannabis plant finds itself in shichimi.

“Hemp seeds have virtually no euphoric effect,” says Mika Hara, senior managing director of Kyoto-based spice company Hararyokaku.“And for shichimi, they’re roasted at a high temperature so they don’t sprout, either.”

Hararyokaku was founded in the 1870s by the son of Hara Soemon, one of the 47 ronin. Hararyokaku claims it still passes on recipes for its products, which range from shichimi to incense, via isshisōden (from father to son).

According to Hara, hemp has been an integral part of Shinto since ancient times and its importance shouldn’t be understated. Spice giant S&B Foods Inc. claims hemp was one of the gokoku (“five grains”) of ancient Japan. There are Shinto rituals in the vicinity of the Grand Shrines of Ise that involve weaving hemp fiber, and some shimenawa (rope indicating a sacred space in Shinto) are braided from hemp.

Buddhism, too, had a role to play in shichimi’s popularity. Three of the country’s oldest shichimi producers started up shop as medicine-focused street vendors on the sandō (approach) to Buddhist temples: Yagenbori at Sensoji, Tokyo; Shichimiya at Kiyomizudera, Kyoto; and Yawataya Isogoro in Zenkoji, Nagano. In a purely mercantile sense, the practically guaranteed footfall a sandō affords makes sense. But there’s a more intrinsic connection between purveyors of shichimi and Buddhism.

“Buddhism and oriental medicine have a common ground of harmony with nature, and that meals should be close to nature,” says Hara. “In Japan, kanpō (traditional Chinese medicine) is still used, combining plant roots, leaves and fruits into medicines and incorporating them into foods and drinks to help manage one’s physical condition. Shichimi was originally made from this idea of kanpō.”

Spice experiment: Sunday in Brooklyn’s house shichimi spice includes burnt bay leaves and coriander. | Gary Landsman
Spice experiment: Sunday in Brooklyn’s house shichimi spice includes burnt bay leaves and coriander. | GARY LANDSMAN

Though dating back to the 1600s, innovation isn’t lacking. Yagenbori has its choose-your-own counter to tailor-make your own shichimi; Hararyokaku boasts kuroshichimi (black shichimi) — “newly” created over 100 years ago; and Maruhachi Takiya, another Nagano company, adds an extra spice in its hachimi (eight flavors). However, shichimi’s contemporary moment isn’t limited to Japan.

Jaime Young, alumnus of two-Michelin-star New York restaurant Atera and co-founder of the Sunday Hospitality restaurant group, says “(shichimi is) definitely catching on, and I think it has been for a while.”

Outside of his restaurants, Young uses shichimi on food ranging from scrambled eggs to grilled fish. “I love the dynamic of the blend,” he says. “From varying dried peppers, to dried seaweed and sesame, it has levels of flavor and texture all in one seasoning. It seems crazy not to experiment.”

The height of this experimentation was Young’s creation of a “house shichimi” at his flagship restaurant Sunday in Brooklyn, a New York brunch favorite.

The process at Sunday begins by dehydrating the restaurant’s own fermented chili hot sauce and citrus peel. Traditional ingredients — dried seaweed, toasted hemp seeds and toasted sesame — are added. Young’s detour from tradition comes with the addition of burnt bay leaves and coriander. The final blend is one that packs as much heat as it does some self-admitted funk.

“This is … a take on shichimi, and for sure nontraditional,” says Young. “But it’s instead unique to us.”

Sunday in Brooklyn makes liberal use of its concoction in its roasted and candied peanuts at the bar and on its fried chicken, for example. But, innovation aside, it is still being used just as Hara, from the 300-year-old Hararyokaku, says it should be: as a “supporting role to delicious food.”

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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