Sansho Pepper - Japanese Encyclopedia
Sansho is one of the typical Japanese spices with a unique fresh aroma. The spicy sensation which it leaves when you taste it is said to increase one's appetite. It is really necessary when in Japanese dishes such as unagi eel and yakitori.
Sansho is one of the typical Japanese spices used in various dishes. Its distinctive feature is the unique refreshing aroma and spicy taste. It is the main component in sansho pepper, whose spicy taste is said to be good for the health. Be careful however that it might be pretty strong, so please do not take too much at a time. In Japan, there is an expression referring to people or things that one shouldn't underestimate, as they may be small in size, but they have many talents and a cheerful personality. It says "sansho pepper may be small, but it gives you sharp, tingling sensation". As you might be able to tell from this expression, sansho pepper has been loved by the Japanese for a long time. We will explain in detail the features of sansho, which is an essential Japanese spice.
What is Sansho Pepper?
Sansho pepper is the fruit of a shrub that grows in Japan and the southern Korean Peninsula. In Japan, it is not only produced by farmers but it can also be found growing in the wild in mountainous areas. The parts which can be eaten and used for making spices are mainly the leaves and the seeds.
1. Fresh Leaves
The leaves of the sansho are called ki no me (buds of the Japanese pepper tree) and are harvested in spring. It is not spicy at all. You can garnish dishes with it to give them a special aroma and color, as well as mix it into miso after chopping it up.
The seeds are harvested in early summer and are 3 to 5 mm in diameter. When eaten, they will cause a strong numbing feeling on your tongue. You can use it together with kombu (edible kelp) to cook Tsukudani (seaweed or seafood simmered in sweetened soy sauce) or add it to other dishes in order to get rid of the fish odor.
3. Sansho Powder
Sansho powder is made by drying the seeds and grinding them. It has a special aroma and spiciness. You can sprinkle it over dishes or mix it with salt and use it as sansho salt.
Dishes Often Served with Sansho Pepper
Photo by Pixta
First of all, we have the unagi (eel) dishes. Sansho powder is usually sprinkled on the Unagi no kabayaki (boiled eel on a grill). As sansho pepper really goes well with chicken meat and eggs, it is also served with Yakitori and Oyako-don. If you ever see a small container on the table with dark green or brown powder in it, there is a high possibility that it is sansho powder. Why not try it out? As the flavor of the sansho powder tends to be pretty strong, it is better to try a small amount first. In addition, sansho pepper is often used in bamboo shoot dishes. Sansho leaves are added into the bamboo shoot dish during cooking. Miso (bean paste) blended with sansho leaves are used as a dressing sauce over bamboo shoots in a dish called Kinome-ae, which is one of the spring recipes in Japan. Also, you can garnish a dish served in a bowl with sansho leaves in order to make the aroma of the sansho spread out, or add it to sushi and fish dishes to get rid of fish odors. If you find small green leaves or seeds on the top of a dish, it must be sansho. Do try and taste it and see what its aroma is all about.
Sansho Pepper as a Souvenir
As explained above, sansho can be used in various ways. However, the fresh leaves and seeds cannot be stored for a long time. Sansho powder is the easiest to use and bring back as a souvenir from Japan. The price per bottle is pretty reasonable, starting from 100 yen. You can find it at supermarkets all year around. Chrimen sansho (dried whitebait with sansho powder), which is a famous souvenir from Kyoto and tsukudani with sansho pepper packed in a vacuum bag would also make good souvenirs. Luckily, sansho pepper matches well with western dishes. We recommend you add it to your steak sauce and dressing. It could be a good idea to buy one for yourself as well for your friends. If you have the chance, please discover what sansho pepper tastes like and enjoy the aroma of authentic Japanese food!