Sansho pepper (山椒) is a Japanese seasoning powder made from the ground berries of the prickly ash tree.

Sansho Powder

Zanthoxylum piperitum, the Japanese pepper, Japanese pricklyash, or sanshō (Japanese: 山椒) is a deciduous aromatic spiny shrub or small tree, belonging to the Rutaceae (citrus and rue) family. Natural range spans from Hokkaido to Kyushu in Japan, southern parts of the Korean peninsula, and Chinese mainland.

Zanthoxylum piperitum, the Japanese pepper, Japanese pricklyash, or sanshō (Japanese: 山椒)

Zanthoxylum piperitum, the Japanese pepper, Japanese pricklyash, or sanshō (Japanese: 山椒)

The plant is important commercially. The pulverised mature fruits (“peppercorns” or “berries”) known as “Japanese pepper” or kona-zanshō (Japanese: 粉ざんしょう) are the standard spice for sprinkling on the broiled eel (kabayaki unagi) dish. It is also one of the seven main ingredients of the blended spice called Shichimi, which also contains red chilli peppers.

Culinary uses

The finely ground Japanese pepper, kona-zanshō, is nowadays usually sold in sealed packets, and individual serving sizes are included inside heat-and-serve broiled eel packages. While red chilli pepper is never used on eel, otherwise, in many usages, the Japanese red chilli pepper, or the shichimi blend of peppers can be used in lieu of Japanese pepper alone, according to taste: e.g., to flavour miso soup, various noodles in broth or dipped in tsuyu, Japanese pickles (tsukemono), teriyaki or fried chicken.

Sansho pepper (山椒) is a Japanese seasoning powder made from the ground berries of the prickly ash tree.

Sansho pepper (山椒) is a Japanese seasoning powder made from the ground berries of the prickly ash tree.

Young leaves and shoots, pronounced ki no mé or ko no mé (Japanese: 木の芽 lit. “tree-bud”) herald the spring season, and often garnish grilled fish and soups. They have a distinctive flavour and is not to the liking of everyone. It is a customary ritual to put a leaf between cupped hands, and clap the hands with a popping sound, this supposedly serving to bring out the aroma. The young leaves are crushed and blended with miso using pestle and mortar (suribachi and surikogi) to make a paste, a pesto sauce of sorts, and then used to make various aemono (or “tossed salad”, for lack of a better word). The stereotypical main ingredient for the resultant kinome-ae is the fresh harvest of bamboo shoots, but the sauce may be tossed (or delicately “folded”, to use a pastrymaking term) into sashimi, clams, squid or other vegetable such as tara-no-me (Aralia elata shoots).

The immature green berries, blanched and salted, are called ao-zanshō (lit. “green sansho”). The berries are traditionally simmered into dark-brown tsukudani, but nowadays are also available as shoyu-zuke, which is just steeped in soy sauce. The berries are also cooked with small fry fish and flavoured with soy sauce (chirimen jako), a specialty item of Kyoto, since its Mount Kurama outskirts is a renowned growing area of the Japanese pepper.

The thornless variety Asakura sansho derives its name from its place of origin, the Asakura district in the now defunct Yokacho, integrated into Yabu, Hyōgo.

Wakayama Prefecture boasts 80% of domestic production. Aridagawa, Wakayama procuces a specialty variety called budō sanshō (“grape sansho”), which bears large fruits and clusters, rather like a bunch of grapes.

Confections

In central and northeastern Japan, a non-sticky rice-cake type confection called goheimochi, which is basted with miso-based paste and grilled, sometimes uses the Japanese pepper as flavour additive to the miso. Also being marketed are sansho flavoured arare (rice crackers), snack foods, and sweet sansho-mochi.

Substitute for Sansho Powder

  • Sichuan (szechuan) pepper

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