Dear Alice,
Based on my forays into Japanese restaurants in North America, I was under the impression that Japanese cuisine didn’t feature any spicy flavorsat all. Then, on my first trip to Japan, I wandered into a restaurant that specializes in soba noodles. When my order came, the waitress drew my attention to a little wooden tube on the table and indicated I should sprinkle the spice inside onto my noodles. I was surprised how piquant it was! I now know it’s called
shichimi — “seven flavors” — so I assume it has seven ingredients. But what the heck are they?

Amy C., Vancouver

Dear Amy,
I’d better admit this right off the bat: This question had me fooled. I figured I could grab our jar of shichimi, jot down the ingredients, and this month’s column would all but write itself. Fat chance.

I did start in my kitchen, rummaging around until I found a dusty bottle of the spice mix, received as a gift a few years back. But when I rolled it over to reveal the label of contents, I discovered a list of eight ingredients! What kind of a seven-flavor spice is that?

Now that I had a taste of what I was up against, I got down to proper research. For starters, I learned that the full name for this Japanese spice blend is shichimi togarashi, the second word being the name in Japanese for Capsicum annum, a red pepper native to Central and South America. C. annum made its way to Europe in the 15th century with Columbus and from there spread along trade routes to Asia. It’s this spicy little number that makes shichimi hot.

A friend who speaks with authority (but is often wrong) assured me that capsicum was introduced to Japan from China, citing the fact that the first kanji in togarashi is one that designates that something is Chinese in origin. But when I double checked, as I do with everything he tells me, I found that in this case the kanji simply means “foreign,” a linguistic leftover from a time when most imports did indeed come from China. (In the late 19th century, foreigners in Japan were called “tojin” even if they were from Europe or America. The words “gaikokujin” and “gaijin” came later.)

Portuguese missionaries may have introduced capsicum to Japan around 1605. Another theory is that Hideyoshi’s troops brought it back in 1592, when they returned from their expedition to the Korean peninsula. Capsicum was grown in Japan from around 1610, but was used initially used only as a medicine. Then in 1625 a merchant in Edo (present-day Tokyo) decided to blend it with other seeds and herbs with medicinal properties and try marketing the mix as a healthy yet tasty additive for food.

The product proved a success, and nearly 400 years later the company, Yagenbori Shichimi Togarashi, is still in business. I visited the company’s retail shop in Asakusa, where they still continue to sell their original chukara medium-spicy blend of seven ingredients: black sesame seeds; the dried peel of the unshu mikan (Satsuma orange); Japanese sansho pepper; dried capsicum; roasted dry capsicum; hemp seeds and poppy seeds. They also offer an ogara extra spicy blend and a kogara mild version. Or you can do what I did and have them mix up a custom batch to your personal specifications. I was after aroma more than heat, so I skipped the regular capsicum in favor of the more fragrant roasted variety, and asked for extra sansho and sesame.

The store also sells the distinctive wooden containers traditionally used for storing and serving shichimi. There are three basic shapes: an upright tube called take (bamboo); a squat, round container called taru (barrel); and my personal favorite, the hyotan (gourd).

Yagenbori is so famous in Japan that your Japanese friends will almost certainly know of it, along with the other two celebrated suppliers: Shichimiya Honpo, in business since 1655, near Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto; and Yawataya Isogoro, founded in 1720 and down the street from the Zenkoji temple in Nagano. Each company has its own recipe: Shichimiya’s blend, for example, includes dried shisho (perilla), while Yawata’s contains ginger and aonori seaweed. All three of the famous shichimi contain exactly seven ingredients.

So what’s the deal with that bottle in my cupboard? When I looked closer, I saw a notation that read yuzu iri (“with added Citrus junos peel”). So while it was tempting to quibble that an eight-ingredient blend shouldn’t be called “shichimi,” it was clear I had no grounds for a false-labeling complaint. I felt slightly vindicated to learn there are companies that make a shichimi-like blend of eight ingredients which they call “hachimi” (eight flavors). Also, bottles of straight red-pepper flakes are sold as “ichimi” (one flavor).

Shichimi is most commonly served at the table as a condiment for Japanese noodles dishes such as soba and udon, but lots of people sprinkle it on gyudon (flavored beef on rice), yakitori, traditional stews or miso soup. You can also use it on grilled chicken and meat, or even on pasta. Capsicum is highly sensitive to heat and light, so it’s best to keep only a small amount handy for daily use, and store the rest in the refrigerator or freezer. And by all means, replace any well-seasoned bottles you find lurking in your kitchen cupboard.

To visit Yagenbori, take the Ginza Line to Asakusa Station. Exit 6 puts you in the Shin-Nakamisedori covered shopping arcade. Turn left and proceed about 300 meters, Yagendori is on the right shortly after you cross Orenji-dori; 1-28-3 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3841-5690; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m., every day of the year. A custom shichimi blend costs ¥500 for 30 grams. Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, with the address where you saw it to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071

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