I need to pause and laugh: last night a Japanese Michelin chef turned to us and said, “you cannot call yourself a foodie if you don’t know Hana Sansho ” as he was referring to traditional Japanese spring herbs.
Japanese raw materials, in general, are complex for foreigners. By some definitions, it isn’t fair to reference all foodies when it comes to specialized ingredients. I consider myself a foodie, I am still learning and while familiar with most ingredients, I learn by seeing them, buy them, and cooking them.
And I am fascinated by markets, supermarkets, and specialized shops as a culinary amateur. When I lived in Paris I had a professional card for Rungis market where I would go weekly at 04h00am to handpick my vegetables and cheeses. I took my smart car and accompanied by Hugues Langlet, my trusted driver and we were off. And squeezing all my purchases into a Smart car was pretty easy, and I purchased lots of pretty things.
In Japan and throughout eastern Asia, I go to markets as soon as I can, and I rarely miss the opportunity. I am fond of all herbs and wild-grown raw materials, mushrooms, vegetables, etc., I buy them whenever I see them.
Sansho is particularly interesting and one of my favorites. It is common and useful, it is harvested from a deciduous tree that belongs to the tangerine family. It grows wild in Japan, and Japanese love sansho in all its forms, and its the pepper’s powerful and clean flavor that tingles your tongue.
In the spring, the soft early growth, the 5cm ends are called kinome, literally meaning “tree shoots” and they are medium soft in your mouth, yet firm when gathered.
The nose fragrance “ahhhh” is something I savour, and last night one of the guests associated it with Yuzu, not so far away it has a citrus-like flavors. Instead of normal peppery tones, it has lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth due to hydroxy-α-sanshool. The plant is popular throughout Asia and in China Sechuan pepper is popular, but should not be confused.
The Sichuan pepper is known in Chinese as huā jiāo. A lesser-used name is shān jiāo (山椒), not to be confused with Tasmanian mountain pepper, which is also the root of the Japanese sanshō (山椒). Confusingly, the Korean sancho (산초, 山椒) refers to a different if related species (Z. schinifolium), while Z. piperitum is known as chopi (초피).
Hanasansho provides the perfect contrast to rich foods and last night it was served with wagyu by chef Suga. A simple preparation accompanied by Japanese Gyu, a.k.a. Wagyu.
These flowers are picked in late April and in early May, a short-lived season for hana sansho. The sansho flowers have a more intense spiciness than the leaves but are milder than the pods.
When the berries mature they are too bitter to consume and are simply discarded. The seed pods are kept and dried to make infamous powdered sansho. The powder is an important component of shichimi-togarashi (seven-spice) and adds a very distinctive flavor, not simply hot like red chili pepper but citrus spicy and even a touch minty.
The fruit berries husks are also used to make ko-sansho and have a different charm. Sansho, Kosansho and Hanasansho are all derived from the same tree. When you think of it the idea is incredible and so-Japanese to dissect a plant into its microcosmic value.