Spice up your next meal and add pep to your step with a versatile ingredient that livens up just about any dish.
By June, spring is in full swing. You can see it in the flowers stretching toward the sun. You can feel it in the gentle breeze that brushes your face. You can hear it in the sounds of gleeful children running and playing in the streets. And you can taste it … in the form of a tongue-tingling pepper?
That’s right—in Japan, the fresh leaves of the sansho (zanthoxylum piperitum, also known as the Japanese pepper) tree are said to represent the spring season and can be found garnishing fish and soup dishes across the country as the weather warms up. But as some diners happily place a leaf in their open palms and clap their hands together—the traditional way of releasing the plant’s lemony aroma—others wrinkle their noses at sansho’s surge of intensity. Short and thorny, the sansho shrub stems from the citrus family and grows across Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south, as well as in parts of Korea and China. It’s a deciduous plant, meaning there are male and female versions. The male plant produces small, edible flowers while the female plant produces peasized berries or peppercorns called kona-zansho. Dried and ground, these berries are a key topping for summer favourite unagi-no-kabayaki, or broiled eel, and they’re one of a handful of ingredients in shichimi, a blended spice used widely in soups, noodle dishes, rice cakes and rice crackers. Sansho berries are normally sold already ground and packaged (you’ll even find single-serving packets of sansho powder sold with ready-made broiled eel in supermarkets), but you can also buy the berries themselves, known as ao-zansho, in their immature state. Blanched and salted, they can be steeped in soy sauce to add an extra punch of flavour before the sauce is used to cook chirimen-jako, a specialty dish made with tiny fish from the sardine family. So, now that you know where to find sansho, the forms it takes and how it’s used, let’s get back to the defining feature I hinted at earlier: its taste. Words to describe sansho on the tongue typically include hot, floral, spicy, prickly and numbing. One science writer compared sansho’s sensation to “a mild electrical current.” And there is even a Japanese proverb that references the peppery plant in its warning not to underestimate the power of small people or things: “Although sansho is small, it is spicy.” All of this is to say: tread lightly, spice girls and guys. Shake some sansho onto your broiled eel or barbecued steak this spring, but remember that a little goes a long way!