A staple of Japanese kitchens and restaurants, sansho (山椒）is a seasoning that can be at times a little hard to place. On the most basic surface level, sansho is a pepper seasoning that is related to the peppers of the Chinese szechuan pepper family. Despite this, you don’t have to be too concerned with melting your lips off. Sansho offers a pleasant flavor profile that is sure to liven up your cooking!
Taste-wise, sansho has a subtle heat that is slower and longer lasting heat than chili peppers, without getting quite as spicy. As with szechuan pepper, this also comes with a slight numbing effect for your lips and tongue. Something that also makes sansho special is its citrus forward flavor. Many people liken it to
lemon or yuzu, which makes sense, as sansho shares the same family as these citrus fruits. I often compare it to the kind of subtle scent and flavor you find in lemongrass.
Traditionally, you will most often see sansho served alongside eel dishes. If you go to a dedicated eel restaurant, you might even see a small gourd on the table. These often contain either sansho or shichimi (Japanese seven spice blend), so make sure you taste a bit before you add it to your dish.
It is also important to add small amounts of sansho at a time to a dish. The complex flavors of sansho can mask what you are eating if you aren’t careful.
How to Use Sansho
Try it when making grilled chicken skewers (yakitori) as a final dusting after you take them off the grill, or with noodle dishes like udon, where a small amount of
sansho can go a long way in adding flavor.
However you choose to enjoy sansho, I recommend starting with a small amount and gradually adding more until you find your comfortable level of spice and flavor. This is definitely one seasoning you should not pass by on your exploration of Japanese cooking!
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!