Shichimi togarashi is unique among herb and spice blends in that we can still pinpoint its beginnings even though it has been around for centuries. Not only do we know the location where it was first made — the Yagenbori herb shop in Tokyo — we also know the exact year, which was 1625. What this means is that it was invented around the time that chili peppers from the Americas were introduced to Japan. Christopher Columbus had found peppers in New World and brought them back to Europe. From Europe, they made their way along trade routes to different parts of Asia and elsewhere.
Shichimi togarashi was invented as a medicine and only after it became popular for its therapeutic benefits was it sold primarily as a seasoning. The company that invented Yagenbori Shichimi Togarashi is still around and still offering its most famous product.
Over time, the seasoning blend became more widely used throughout Japan. Other manufacturers began to make their own versions.
The name shichimi togarashi translates to seven-flavored pepper, hence the Japanese seven-spice nickname that you will sometimes see.
Today, shichimi togarashi is produced by two major Japanese companies and a few smaller ones that make a traditional version. All of the blends have the requisite seven ingredients. The spice blend is one of the leading Japanese table condiments.
Shichimi togarashi flavor profile
While blends differ slightly based on factors like region and manufacturer, shichimi togarashi typically consists of the same set of ingredients. The seven shichimi togarashi ingredients are:
The spices above combine to give dishes a stronger umami flavor combined with hot pepper heat. The orange peel adds a citrus sweetness and the sesame and poppy seeds bring a crunch. The spice level can differ, and some companies offer mild and spicy versions of the blend.
How spicy is shichimi togarashi?
If you were to compare shichimi togarashi to a spice blend like harissa powder or berbere seasoning, you would probably conclude that it wasn’t that hot. However, it’s pretty spicy when you compare it to other Japanese foods. The heat comes almost entirely from the red chili pepper though the sansho pepper may contribute a mild kick.
Japanese cooking revolves the flavor of fresh, quality ingredients; shichimi togarashi is meant to complement those ingredients without overwhelming them. The heat level in moderately spicy blends tends to start out low but will build as you eat.
Hotter versions of the spice blend use a chili pepper called takanotsume, which translates to hawk’s claw. The name comes from the pepper’s pointed shape. When these peppers are dried and ground, they are commonly referred to by the generic term akatogarashi or red chili pepper.
Think of shichimi togarashi and the Japanese equivalent of salt and pepper. Japanese restaurants commonly offer it at the table. You use it to add heat to soba or udon noodles, soups such as miso soup or to fatty and fried foods like broiled eels (unagi) and tempura.
The blend is versatile enough to be used in Western dishes as well. Add it to tuna salad or chicken salad for a unique spark. While shichimi togarashi is traditionally used on cooked food at the table, you can use it to season raw food as well. Use it as a dry rub for grilled meat or in a marinade.