Sansho: Pan-Asian pepper


Whole sansho peppercorns. Photo by Pauline Fujita

Shichimiya spice store, near Kiyomizudera Kyoto. Photo by Pauline Fujita.

One of the things I love almost as much as eating is taking photos. So it was that I found myself in Kyoto this past summer, snapping pic after identical pic of a stunning sunset. When I finally emerged from my singular focus I realized I’d lost track of my ever-patient translator (my sister). To entertain myself while I waited for her to return, I wandered into what seemed to be an old spice shop. And not just any spices, but a specialty retailer of my dad’s favorite spice mix: shichimi togarashi, Japanese seven spice. As I stood at the counter readying myself to pay I looked down at the glass display and spotted some other packages and asked the shopkeeper what they were. Yuzu powder, ichimi togarashi (one-spice, the primary chili powder from the shichimi togarashi), pickled cherry blossoms and whole sansho pepper. Of course, he had me at yuzu powder.

Ever the avid ingredient collector, I purchased one of each, including the sansho, which, next to yuzu powder, hardly seemed exotic. Pleased with myself for getting this far in Japanese, I ventured further. “How long have you guys been here?…the shop looks very established.”

The man chuckled politely. “We just had our 350th anniversary!” For the second time in our conversation my eyes were as big as dinner plates. Feeling a bit sheepish, I asked about how best to use each of the ingredients and here came the biggest surprise. The sansho, he told me in hushed tones, is great if you roast the seeds, grind them up and put them in inari sushi. Now, I fancy myself something of an inari connoisseur. If I could only pick one food to be stranded with on a desert island, it would be inari. So I was surprised and pleased to hear of an inari variation that was new to me. “Wow, I’ve never heard of that — is that a common way of eating it?” The man grinned, pleased with my reaction, “It’s a local specialty.”

Inari with sansho and chopped mustard greens. Photo by Pauline Fujita.

I wandered away and found my sister before too long and started wondering: How much of that was just inferences from my imprecise Japanese translation? Did he really say “toast the seeds?” So when I got back home to California with my precious Kyoto specialty sansho, I couldn’t bear to risk the whole package on a guess. I went to the store and bought cheap ground sansho to try. What if I didn’t even like the flavor of sansho? Later in the week I found myself hungry and scrounging for a snack. I think it started with a sprinkle of sansho on mac’n’cheese and just went downhill from there in a blur of culinary sacrilege. Suffice it to say that I discovered I quite enjoy sansho and that it rapidly became one of my new favorite flavors.

Whole sansho peppercorns. Photo by Pauline Fujita

What I didn’t realize, however, was that I’d had sansho before. Sansho is a variety of Sichuan peppercorn, or at least the internet tells me so. The Japanese variety is green whereas the kind more typical to Chinese markets is pinkish brown, and I could swear, less tasty (to me anyway).

In fact there are varieties in many of the Asian countries — complete with pics on this spice site. Sansho is one of the ingredients in Japanese seven spice and Sichuan peppercorn a component of Chinese five spice powder.

But back to my Kyoto sansho. Bolstered by my experimentation with cheap sansho and having found references to corroborate both toasting it and putting it in inari I toasted a handful of the pods for 30 seconds in a dry pan and ground them in my trusty mortar and pestle.  I mixed the freshly toasted and ground powder with some rice and diced greens and stuffed it into some age (fried tofu pockets).

Perhaps it was my mad Japanese skillz, or the quality of sansho honed over 350 years in business, but at the very least I can thank that shopkeeper for letting me in on the local “secret.” And the smell of toasting sansho? Lemony, peppery, roasty heaven. Unfortunately, whole sansho is a bit hard to come by outside Japan, but if you do get a chance it is worth it. And if you’re ever in Kyoto, I highly recommend a visit to Kiyomizudera, and to Shichimiya. The ground stuff is readily available in Japanese markets here but be careful…it’s a slippery slope.

(075) 551-0738
2-221 Kiyomizu Higashiyama Ward Kyoto City

2 responses to “Sansho: Pan-Asian pepper”

  1. Tomo Hirai Avatar
    Tomo Hirai

    See, my family is from Kyoto, and I will vouch in saying (with a tinge of home-team bias) that Shichimiya is the best spice shop in the world. This is just me (and the rest of Kyoto), but I just wanted to say that.

    Putting a bit of shichimi or sansho on some asazuke daikon? BAM total Kyoto-Style deliciousness. If only I could go and eat that stuff every day, I’d just live off of rice and pickles for the rest of the day (albeit expensive pickles).

    1. Pauline Fujita Avatar
      Pauline Fujita

      I hear you on the pickles. We’re heading into what I think of as “tsukemono season” (when all my favorite things to pickle are in season) and this blog is about to get real with tsukemono recipes!

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