What is Shichimi Togarashi?: Answers from a Spice Merchant
Last July, I set out with my family to experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of the land of the rising sun. We would not be disappointed by the abundance of Japanese food traditions. From bustling markets and an overwhelming number of restaurants in Tokyo to traditionally grilled trout and pickled veggies in a tiny thatched-roof village surrounded by the Japanese Alps, we were continually delighted by new and unique flavors around the country.
Our eating mission started off strong in Tokyo at the world-famous Tsukiji outer market. We started with Japanese omelettes, fresh seafood, mochi, tea, rice bowls, fresh fruit, and sushi. And that was all before 9 am. My stomach was very satisfied, but the spice merchant in me was secretly looking to uncover the mystery of one of my favorite spice blends: Shichimi Togarashi.
Shichimi Togarashi is a spice blend with Japanese roots that contains ingredients such as toasted sesame seeds, black sesame seeds, orange peel, white poppy seeds, Hungarian paprika, Chinese chiles, Szechwan peppercorns, ginger, and toasted seaweed. Walk into our Bend shop and you might hear me raving about its versatility on roasted veggies, soups, grilled meats, and even popcorn.
I wondered if people in Japan actually use this spice blend on a daily basis. I was immediately encouraged when we stopped for lunch at our first of many noodle shops. We made it to the top floor of a shopping mall and scurried our way through a labyrinth of restaurant options before settling on a small ramen shop in a back corner.
After placing our order by pointing out the pictured items on the menu, I noticed a small wooden box on our table with a tiny spoon handle sticking out. I immediately lunged for the lid and pulled off the top to discover the glorious red color of Shichimi Togarashi. I used the tiny spoon to scoop some into my hand and tasted the spicy, nutty, citrusy flavors that I had come to love in our blend.
As the trip went on, I discovered that the wooden box (with the tiny spoon) of Shichimi Togarashi seemed to be a required addition to the tables of most Japanese noodle restaurants. So, I proceeded to consume immense amounts of noodles in search of answers to how this became an integral part of Japanese cuisine.
Through my research, I learned that in 1625 a spice merchant named Tokuemon set up shop in Tokyo on the banks of the Yagenbori Canal. He set out to make a tasty and healthful blend of spices that included roasted red chiles, sansho pepper, nori, sesame seeds, orange peel, and poppy seeds. Aka, the first version of Shichimi Togarashi. This spice blend became so popular that Shogun, the leader of Japan, granted all succeeding generations of the Yagenbori shop permission to use his name as part of their name (a great honor). That tradition lives on today with 10th generation spice master, Tokuaki.
Like any popular seasoning, other merchants in Japan started making their own versions with the same ingredients but slightly different recipes. There are three regions known for their versions of Shichimi Togarashi with slight variations in ingredients and flavor profiles. We discovered many of these variations in our travels and they were all delicious, but I would not be satisfied until I visited the original shop.
On our last full day in Tokyo, in what can only be described as an oppressive heatwave, we set out to find the Yagenbori spice shop. We made our way via foot, train, and taxi to the Tokyo Skytree–the tallest tower in the world. We then located the shop from a birdseye view and took advantage of the air conditioning for a minute. After cooling off and descending to street level, we continued our march across the Sumida river and into a tourist-filled neighborhood near the famous Senso ji Temple. With only minutes to spare before closing, covered in sweat, and having broken my children’s hearts by not letting them visit a puppy cafe, we finally saw it.
The tiny Yagenbori spice shop is still located in its original neighborhood on a popular market street. The staff was friendly and helpful as I filled my bag full of various kinds of Shichimi Togarashi and other seasonings. I was excited to meet fellow spice merchants across the ocean and attempted to tell them that I too am a spice merchant (albeit only 1st generation). They smiled and laughed, so I am not sure if they understood me or if they were just happy I was buying so many spices. Either way, I acquired an even greater appreciation for this versatile spice. I recommend it as an excellent addition to any dinner table, right next to your salt and pepper (tiny spoon not required but certainly more fun).