The Japanese spice blend taking over America brings the heat

Chefs embrace the spicy-herbal-citrusy hit of shichimi togarashi in everything from salad to seafood to cocktails


A good bowl of ramen seems unimprovable, if not for the discrete, red-topped bottle often sitting aside it. Shake the jar and out falls an array of seasonings that brightens and heats simultaneously.

This is shichimi togarashi, and it’s making its way from the ramen counter to the spice rack of fine-dining kitchens, stretching beyond noodle soups and rice to cured cactus and fried chicken.

Shichimi togarashi is decidedly Japanese, but its roots are in Chinese herbal medicine. Each of its seven ingredients (“shichi” means “seven” and “mi” means “taste”; “togarashi” is Japanese dried red chile) brings a distinct flavour profile and herbal benefit to the colourful blend. A traditional recipe mixes togarashi with sansho (lemony Sichuan peppercorns that make your tongue tingle), dried orange or tangerine peels, dried seaweed (nori), sesame seeds, hemp seeds and garlic. Some blends may swap in dried ginger, yuzu peel or poppy seeds.

The blend is commonly referred to simply as togarashi in the US. Still, to avoid confusion with ichimi togarashi (“ichi” meaning “one,” so “one-taste pepper”), which is merely ground red chile pepper, you should call it shichimi.

“The herbal medicine idea was taken by the Japanese — not as largely practiced as in China — but it’s the idea of something being good for your health,” says Hiroko Shimbo, an authority on Japanese cuisine and author of several books, including Hiroko’s American Kitchen (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012, US$22 [RM89.32]).

“If you notice, all of these Japanese products are on American menus now,” says Greg Dunmore, co-owner of the Japanese Pantry, which sells three types of shichimi togarashi to its growing list of restaurant customers, including Frances in San Francisco. “They don’t ring out as Asian — they’re French-California — but everyone is using premium ingredients today.”

Mexican chef Enrique Olvera uses the spice blend in a mirin-cured nopales (cactus) dish that’s been on the menu at Manta since the Cape, a Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, opened in 2015. “Chilli is something we find in three countries (Peru, Mexico and Japan) that influences our menu,” wrote Olvera in an email. “Our supplier brings it to us from Japan twice a week and then we bring it to life. Togarashi is an ingredient I like a lot; it reminds me of the mango with chilli and the worm salt from Oaxaca.”

Little gems satsuma, watermelon radish, miso vinaigrette and toasted shichimi togarashi in a salad at Octavia (Source: Octavia)

That citrus, fruity hit makes it a perfect foil for seafood, too. “It’s one of those things that really enhances an oyster,” says chef de cuisine Robert Hernandez of San Francisco’s cozy Octavia, where he first started sprinkling it atop bivalves four years ago.

Today, Hernandez uses shichimi liberally as an un-fussy way to elevate simple, seasonal ingredients, and he creates his own custom blends to suit. A towering little gem salad comes topped with fresh satsuma oranges, watermelon radish and miso vinaigrette, liberally doused in a shichimi togarashi. “It’s not a traditional [shichimi] togarashi,” says Hernandez, who increased the seaweed measure and replaced the dried tangerine with shallots, because the salad was already so citrus-heavy. “The umami comes up, and it has a sweetness that’s different from other spices.”

Barton G’s devilled eggs come with black truffles and a shichimi bacon crumble (Source: Barton G)

“It’s my favourite trifecta of seasonings: Citrus, chillis and salt. The addition of nori and sesame seeds make it really craveable,” says chef Attila Bollock of Barton G, in Los Angeles. “I could put it on just about anything.” The restaurant’s popular version of devilled eggs features white truffle whipped egg yolk topped with a shichimi bacon crumble, crisp garlic and fresh, black truffles.

While traditionalists may frown upon seeing the blend topping anything beyond udon and miso soup, chefs are notorious for plucking curious finds from their travels and incorporating them into dishes. As a ripple down effect — from chefs to big brands to consumers — it’s easy to see what’s driving shichimi’s expanded use. Look at any trend forecast these days, and topping the list is global spices. The Institute of Food Technologists noted that “consumers are developing an appetite for new and exciting ethnic flavours” in its predictions for hot food trends of 2018.

But before it can hit the supermarket on a bag of Lay’s potato chips, it first has to be seen on menus. At the Heritage, a seasonal American restaurant in Forest Park, Illinois, chef Michael Spiewak makes a confit pork belly with braised escarole and shichimi hollandaise for an epic Eggs Benedict. The star, apart from the rich pork belly cooked slowly in olive oil and citrus for 12 hours, is the spice blend that hits your palette first and remains with you at the end.

There’s a wealth of great Japanese restaurants in New York, which is where chef Jamie Young, of Sunday in Brooklyn, got his inspiration. “I became really excited about the spice blend and how we could make it our own but still stylistically keep it similar to its traditional self,” he emailed. In order to make a truly original fried chicken, Young took leftover fermented chilli pulp from their house-made hot sauce and added the bar’s spent citrus peel, burnt coriander, bay leaf and sea lettuce. “It tasted great with a wonderful depth of flavour, similar to togarashi, but it was our own unique blend,” he wrote.

The spice blend has even been adopted by creative bartenders.

Hunky Dory’s reinvention of the Bloody Mary pairs carrot juice with a house shichimi blend (Source: Hunky Dory)

At Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, New York’s Crown Heights, bartender/owner Claire Sprouse wanted to make a truly seasonally inspired Bloody Mary. Her first step: Remove the canned tomato juice from the equation and replace it with carrot juice. “I wanted to rim the drink with a blend of spices that would capitalise on that savoury but slightly sweet element, provide spice and warmth, and add a new layer of aromatics to the finished drink. Togarashi brings all of those things to the glass,” says Sprouse, who utilises bar waste — spent citrus peels and leftover fennel seeds — in the final product.

If you’re looking to try your hand at it, cookbook author Shimbo has one piece of advice: Find it fresh. Whenever she travels to Tokyo, she picks up her own custom batch at Yagenbori in the Asakusa district, where they whip up unique versions for each visitor based on their preferences — heat being a key to its endless permutations. Shimbo likes it spicier. “I just cannot buy a little bottle over here. It is so stale,” she says of store-bought brands.

If you don’t find yourself in Tokyo, or have the wherewithal to make your own blend, chef/owner Patrick Connolly of Rider in Brooklyn has an additional recommendation: The shichimi togarashi blend from Manhattan’s famed Kalustyan’s (also available online from global bazaar SnukFoods). He uses it in a coating for fried eggplant, adding cayenne, paprika, garlic powder and brown sugar to a shichimi base.

“I started using it 13 years ago in Boston,” says Connolly. “The restaurant I was chef at was just outside Chinatown, and we’d constantly pick up new ingredients and play with them in the kitchen.” — Bloomberg