Okay, so yeah, I’m putting up two “S” posts. Let me tell you why. I thought about San Antonio first. I love San Antonio, but it’s not something that really inspires me to take to the internets and blow out multiple stanzas of beautiful prose. I grew up in this city, I love this city, but the things I think are the most positive about the city are freaking mundane. There’s no need for me to work too hard to convince you that San Antonio is a great place to be. It’s not New York, or Hong Kong, or any place truly exotic. I mean, it’s certainly a cooler place than Oklahoma City or something. Anyway, back on topic. There is an “S” topic that will inspire me to spew out a vomitous amount of excited jibber jabber. It’s shichimi.
Repeat after me, “SHICHIMI”
Carolyn and I really enjoyed eating in the cheap sukiyas and ramenyas in Japan. Where else could you get a bowl of paper thin beef on rice, or super hearty, fresh ramen noodles for less than $10? No, neither dish is really something that you would get at Le Bernardin or Morimoto, or even freaking Benihana. These are basic, staple meals that keep the stomachs of Japan full. I was listening to a man on NPR’s The Splendid Table talk about Japanese food and how it’s simple and the quality is simply determined by intent. Cheap food in Japan is freaking DELICIOUS. Their intent is to take the utmost pride in what you eat, whether it’s 400 yen or 4,000 yen.
Anyhow, at the cheap Japanese restaurant table you’re likely to find bright pink pickled ginger, a few different dark sauces, definitely shoyu, and I’m not really sure but probably also ponzu and a sweetened shoyu. Next to these is a squeeze bottle filled with an orange mystery powder. That’s shichimi, and that my friend, is gold. Your dish of say, sukiyaki will arrive with slightly dry beef, sauteed onions, and rice. It’s up to you to dress it as you wish. I usually add a little shoyu for moisture, a bunch of shichimi for spice and savoriness, and pickled ginger. I learned that by watching the other patrons (when in doubt, copy a local.)
Let me try to describe my first experience with shichimi in a way that doesn’t sound like contrived erotica. I had a bowl of sukiyaki, it was good. I put shichimi on top, and suddenly it had heat, umami, and a curious blend of other flavors that were familiar, but not familiar together. I knew I liked it right away, it was no pain/pleasure thing like assam laksa in Malaysia. It was just good. I had no idea what the powder was, and my knowledge of katakana isn’t good enough to read the label. This was in Osaka, in September, and I was too shy to ask in my poor excuse for Japanese what this magical blend of spice was. Well, when we returned in February to Tokyo, I asked the nice little lady at the sukiya in my most polite and friendly tone of voice while pointing to the bottle, “Onaigashimas? Kore wa desu ka?” And she said shichimi. I looked that up on the internet right away and learned something that made sense in retrospect.
In Japanese shichi means “seven.” Shichimi togarashi means “seven flavor chili pepper.” According to wikipedia, it commonly includes the following seven ingredients:
- coarse ground red chili pepper
- ground sansho (click here for an explanation)
- roasted orange peel (weird flavor that makes sense once you know it’s there)
- black sesame seed (plainly visible)
- white sesame seed (plainly visible)
- hemp seed
- ground ginger
Really, there’s nothing too exotic here, except for maybe the sansho. It’s all about the mix and balance of flavors. Shichimi displays the thing I love the most about Japanese cuisine. Without any truly remarkable ingredients, some soul who was searching for a perfect blend of flavors, spices, textures, and umami. I can’t imagine how long it took them to put the blend together, much less get the proportions right, but whoever it was must have toiled for a significant period of time to make it all work…and boy oh boy, does it work.
To answer my own question, is shichimi the world’s finest condiment? Absolutely yes. I would put this shichimi on everything if I could.