Sansho Pepper: Flavor Profile
A favorite Japanese spice, which is found in the popular Japanese 7 Spice blend, sansho is a peppercorn-like fruit from the Rutaceae family. The tiny green pods have a natural tangy, spicy-citrus flavor, and actually leave a numbing sensation on the tongue when cracked.
Sansho pepper is widely used in Japanese and South Korean cuisine but hasn’t yet been distributed much further outside those countries. The spice’s tart, spicy flavor pairs well with ginger and sesame, and you’ll find it as an ingredient in numerous Japanese noodle dishes. Just remember: Sansho is peppery and powerful, so use it sparingly.
Sansho Pepper: Common Uses
In Japanese cooking, sansho pepper is one of the most pungent and flavorful ingredients. Its citrusy notes balance seafood dishes – like grilled eel – and the peppery pods complement pork and chicken, as well. From sauces, to rice dishes, this spice provides a burst of lemony pepper flavor that stands out and heightens any dish.
How should you use it? Even if you aren’t using a Japanese recipe, sansho complements a variety of American and European dishes. It can be substituted for tart citrus flavors – say, in a zesty Italian dressing – or to add a bit of refreshing tang and spiciness to sauces. A few common uses include:
- Zesty Sauces – The citrus notes and tingling feeling sansho leaves on the tongue melds nicely in zesty sauces. A tangy BBQ sauce, vinaigrette, or a sansho butter over fish are a few ways to utilize these flavorful pods.
- Sweet Sauces – Sansho complements sweet flavors, from molasses to teriyaki. Use it to add a burst of flavor and hints of spiciness to a sweet glaze or reduction.
- Finishing Spice – Sansho’s flavor is volatile; it can lose a lot of its zest from overcooking. That’s why its commonly used as a finishing spice – just toss some over a steak or in a zesty soup near the end of cooking.
- Seafood – Sansho makes the perfect pair with seafood. It’s wonderful over salmon, eel, octopus or bass as a sauce or just a flavorful pinch.
- Noodles and Rice – Sansho pairs nicely with cilantro and you’ll find it in many noodle and rice dishes. Add some flair to white rice with a cilantro/sansho mixture. Or use it to bring flavorful acid to a noodle bowl.
History of Sansho Pepper
Sansho pepper has been cultivated and used as a cooking spice in Japan for thousands of years. The exact origins of the plant are not known, although some believe it may have originated in mainland China.
It is believed to be one of the first spices used in cooking, with archaeological sites showing sansho in use as early as 12,000 B.C. Throughout Japanese history, the herb has not waned in popularity. The herb was used throughout the Nara era in the 8th century, during which time it was called “naruhajika.”
And during the Kamakura era, the plant was used by samurai as a spice for wild game. This remains a tradition even today, as the herb’s pungent aroma adds fragrance for foods with strong odors and tastes (like fish and game meat). Widespread use of sansho began in the 1700s, as the population grew and restaurants became mainstream. Chefs utilized the pepper for numerous dishes, and at this time, commercial cultivation began in Japan.
In addition to being use as a spice, sansho pepper has also been used in traditional Eastern medicine. The Chinese use the herb for indigestion and intestinal distress, as well as for sore throats and coughs.
Today, sansho is widely used in cooking by the Japanese, and it carries cultural significance. In fact, if you visit Japan, you’ll be sure to find sansho gifts sold as souvenirs.
Sansho – which is also frequently called Japanese pepper and chopi – is the fruit of the prickly ash tree. Although it may have originated in China, it grows abundantly across Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, as well as in parts of South Korea.
The prickly ash tree produces blooms beginning in April, a bright yellow flower. And the female trees produce small green pods, or berries. The berries grow until early September, when they turn a deep red and begin bursting to release their seeds. The burst berry is what the spice is made from, whether ground or sold whole. Typically, the berries are handpicked, dried, and they remain shelf stable for a long time.
Nearly all sansho comes from the Wakayama Prefecture, which produces about 80% of the world’s sansho.
About Our Sansho Pepper
Our sansho comes from Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, which is south of Kyoto. We work with small farms in the region – which is the center of sansho growing industry. In particular, our growers are near Kainan City, where the first commercial grower, Yamamoto Katsunosuke, established the industry more than 100 years ago.
The region’s mountainous landscape provides perfect growing conditions for the sansho tree, as the trees don’t like full sun. Therefore, they’re commonly planted on mountainsides and in valleys in the Wakayama region to protect the tree from the sun.