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Yakumi: adding spice to dining in Japan

August 8, 2016

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Chilli heat to beat the cold

Hot chilli pepper is far less in evidence in Japan than it is in Southeast Asia or neighboring Korea. That doesn’t mean it has no place in the kitchen. Red chilli is used to add flecks of red piquancy to dishes. More commonly, though, the chilli flakes (ichimi or "one spice") are mixed with other ingredients to make shichimi (“seven spice”).

The exact composition of shichimi varies, but common ingredients include sansho powder, aonori seaweed flakes, dried orange peel, black sesame seeds, and hemp or poppy seed. Each of these are yakumi in their own right. Combined, they pack an even greater punch, both visually and on the tongue.

Shichimi is most often used with hot foods, especially in cold weather. It adds another dimension of heat to winter nabe hot pots. And dispensers of shichimi are also found at soba and udon restaurants, to give extra zip to hot soup noodles.

An essential seasonal accent

In the warmer months, one of the most popular dishes is a small trout-like fish known as ayu. These are often grilled and eaten whole, with a simple vinegar dip made using the tade herb that grows along the banks of the rivers where the ayu live.

Another mid-summer specialty is unagi kabayaki, freshwater eel that is broiled and seasoned with a dark, sweet-savory basting sauce. The traditional yakumi with this dish is sansho powder, which is sprinkled on generously to lend its lemony, peppery flavor and tongue-numbing properties, while also helping to balance the rich fattiness of the fish.

In hot weather, noodles are sometimes immersed in a chilled broth, with thin slices of light green sudachi citrus covering the entire surface. Flavor, aroma and appearance: all are intended to stimulate the appetite.

Daikon radish is a common yakumi, whether shredded finely or cut into delicate matchsticks. When grated, it is known as daikon oroshi. In autumn, a popular seasonal variation of this is to grate a red chilli along with the daikon, which is given the poetic name momiji oroshi (“red maple grated daikon”).