I am often asked what my favorite Japanese food is. I couldn’t possibly answer adequately. There are too many wonderful dishes. But I could say, without hesitation, that my favorite flavor is sansho. Be it kinome, the leaves, or sansho berries, the Japanese prickly ash tree produces flesh of primal and perfect flavor.
It is said that the use of sansho as a spice in Japan has been traced back to the prehistoric Jomon period, the final 10,000 years of the BC era. It may well be that as Stonehenge was set in England, the Pyramids of Giza raised in Egypt, the colossal Olmec heads carved in Mesoamerica, the Japanese were spicing things up with sansho peppers gathered from wild mountain trees.
Kinome comes early, in April, and adds a pungent aroma to soups and bamboo shoots when they are young and tender. The berries come later. They are dimpled like citrus, the thin green skin peeling away to reveal a brown seed much like a peppercorn inside. But despite the resemblance to a peppercorn the seeds lacks any flavor of their own. All of the flavor is in the skin which packs a serious punch, the taste as dazzling and forthright as the sun on a hot clear day. A tiny, pin head sized bite sends a spot on my tongue quivering and tingling. Potent and tangy, the berries cut straight through oily foods. They are most often dried and ground in to a powdered seasoning that tops grilled eel and fatty fish. But I keep a small bunch of fresh berries in my freezer all year long and pull them out from time to time for simmered dishes and sauces.
We had three sansho trees on our land here, two robust and one struggling the the shade of another tree. Then the largest one died for reasons unknown. Fearing scarcity, I decided it was time to plant new trees and ordered a few sapling, two producing berries and two producing flowers, another sansho delicacy. When they arrived I wandered over to where the other two trees stand, a place I envisioned as a future sansho grove. As I walked about considering the land’s layout and plotting where to plant the new trees, I discovered two volunteer seedlings with trunks as thin as needles. The I found two more, then three more. My maternal instincts barely stir in the company of human babies but show me a puppy or kitten, a seedling or sapling, and you’ll find me ready to take them all in. I planted the yearling trees I had bought, then transplanted as many tiny sansho seedlings as I could find space for and dug the rest up, planting them in pots.
I knew who would appreciate sansho seedlings and brought two of them to my last cooking class with Tsuchiya san. He and his wife Yukiko were thrilled. As it would pass, on the same day I would learn a dish that now tops my list as one of the best things I have ever tasted in Japan. On the menu for that day’s lesson was kamasu hobayaki, barracuda wrapped and grilled in Japanese white bark magnolia leaves and served with a sauce of sansho and vinegar. I fell so immediately in love with the dish that I came home with beautiful branches from my teacher’s tree and at my request Hanako called our neighbor landscaper on the same day to schedule clearing a piece of land on our property where I plan to plant my own white bark (aka. big leaf) magnolia tree.
I’m as smitten with this dish for its flavor as I am for its construct. You buy fish at the fish mongers, gather big leaves from the magnolia, kinome and berries from the sansho tree, and if you are me, you go so far as to wander down the road and gather bamboo skins to dry and use as ties. The salted fish gets wrapped, tied up, and grilled for just the amount of time it takes to grind a few clean kinome leaves and a couple of sansho berries in a mortar with a gentle, high quality rice vinegar. (And just to add another layer of intrigue, did you know that in Japan, a pestle made of wood from a sansho tree is most highly regarded?) Then the table is set and as the leaf is unwrapped a sweet, nutty, roasty aroma rises with the steam of perfectly juicy fish. So elegant. So basic. Primal and perfect.