Charred Shishito Peppers
With Sweet Togarashi Spice
Ah, trendy food. I both love and hate when something gets ‘discovered’ by the food community, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I love it because, as you probably know if you’ve been following the site for a while, I’m endlessly fascinated by the diversity of food, and I’m ecstatic to see interesting produce and pantry staples become easier to find. But as with all trends, food goes through cycles, and all of the sudden people aren’t eating it (or selling it). It’s frustrating – just because it’s not the trend du jour doesn’t mean I’m done with it. I mean, sun dried tomatoes haven’t been trendy since 1985 (if you’re around my age, there’s a good chance you’re picturing Monica from Friends making fun of them right now), but that doesn’t mean that I’m done eating them. And sure, the disappearing sense of novelty is partly to blame, but some trendy foods are also driven from the collective consciousness by over-saturation. Once something becomes popular, people start playing and experimenting, and amazing recipes start to show up. That’s wonderful, but things go a little too far at times, and popular ingredients start getting shoe-horned into rather questionable and over-wrought recipes. Take bacon. As much as I like bacon, I think we can safely say that we went through a period of bacon over-saturation (Bacon candy! Bacon pie! Bacon-scented stationary! Bacon-wrapped bacon! Bacon-wrapped fish quenelles, made from fish fed an all-bacon diet, cooked in a bacon-scented-broth and topped with crumbled bacon salt, served on a plate made from bacon!). Enough is enough. Let’s just settle down and say “Hey, this is awesome, let’s eat this and not drive each other crazy with it.”
That last paragraph serves both as an introduction to this recipe, and as a bit of preemptive defense on my part: I’m cookin’ trendy, but I promise I’m not getting crazy. No scented stationary involved.
Let’s talk about the shishito peppers. There’s a pretty solid chance that there’s a trendy little restaurant near you, replete with Edison bulbs and exposed brick, more than ready to sell you a frighteningly expensive platter of charred shishitos to go along with your pint of session ale. But hey, who can blame them? They’re delicious, they’re great to work with, they’re healthy, and it’s just fun to say ‘shishito.’ (For the record, it’s pronounced shee-SHEE-toh, and not… well, you get it.) These tasty, thin-skinned little peppers are amazing when charred and served with a bit of oil and salt (a preparation also used for the similar padron pepper). It’s an awesome way to eat them, but I had to tinker. I can’t help it. I’m a tinkerer. But I’m not trying to completely reinvent the wheel here; I wanted to marry my little Japanese peppers to some sweet, spicy, salty Japanese ingredients.
The basics of this recipe are pretty simple: char and blister the peppers in a very hot pan or on a grill, then add sake, evaporate most of the liquid, and toss with a mixture of sugar and shichimi togarashi. The end product is lightly sweet, a little citrusy (especially if you can get a good sake with a nice floral/citrus kick), salty, spicy, and incredibly tasty. These little guys just disappear when you put them in front of four or five other people. Or two. Or just me. They’re amazing as part of a Japanese izakaya-style meal, ideally alongside grilled goodies (like my bacon-wrapped shimeji mushroom kushiyaki, or my chicken tsukune). When you’re eating the peppers, simply grab a stem and bite off everything below it, seeds and all.
A Pepper By Any Other Name
Warning: substantial linguistic diversion ahead.
I love linguistics, and I love food history and culture, so I get pretty psyched when the two intersect in an interesting way. If that’s not your cup of tea (a word and a drink, incidentally, borrowed from Chinese), feel free to jump past the next picture and on to the recipe notes.
The name ‘shishito pepper’ is a great example of how funny words can become when we borrow and modify them from other languages. It’s also a continuing example of just how confusing the word ‘pepper’ really is. In Japanese, they’re called shishi tōgarashi which means ‘lion-dog hot pepper.’ The ‘lion-dog’ (shishi, also known by a load of other names) is a common feature in Chinese, Japanese and Korean art, and they’re frequently portrayed with one paw on a ball or a small cub, steadfastly guarding a gate or temple. Apparently somebody decided that the end of these peppers look like their curled-up, snarling faces. Alright. Tōgarashi means hot/chili-pepper, but when the phrase made its way into English, we took the ‘Tō’ off of the front and tossed the rest, which is a little nonsensical. Imagine the reverse situation: it’s sort of like taking ‘bell pepper’ and turning into ‘beru-pe togarashi’ where ‘pe’ part is left behind from the word pepper. For the record, Japan didn’t do that – bell peppers are called pīman in Japanese, from the Spanish word pimiento (more on that word in a moment). What I’m saying is it would have made a lot more sense if we called them shishi peppers. In fact, I haven’t yet figured out who started calling them shishitos in the first place. To be fair though, Japan has done the same thing to plenty of English words; the Japanese word pasokon is simply “personal computer” with the ends lopped, and pokemon is just ‘pocket monster’ with a Japanese pronunciation and truncation. Language is fun.
But there’s more to this than just a cross-cultural game of broken telephone. These words tell you something about the development of Japanese and Asian food in general. Japan hasn’t embraced the hot chili with the same fervor seen in China, India, and Southeast Asia, but it’s safe to say that the ingredient has made its mark on the cuisine of the entire continent. This is despite the fact that chili peppers were not found in Asian cuisine until the 16th century when they were imported from South/Central America by the Portuguese. That in and of itself is amazing – I mean, picture Asian cuisine without chilies. They’re iconic, and yet they’re a relatively young ingredient in the region. And as luck would have it, the globe-trotting pepper has dragged linguistic confusion with it everywhere it has traveled.
Apparently when Columbus set down in the New World, he quickly encountered chili peppers, which had long been cultivated in the region and were already wildly popular. Presumably without pausing to consider the linguistic insanity he was about to unleash, he decided to call them pimiento, in honour of (or confusion with) the ultra-valuable peppercorn plant (called pimienta) which was one of the key economic factors driving his attempts to find a new route to Asia. Apparently the word ‘pepper’ (which is Sanskrit in origin) ended up being used in English by the 16th century simply because of the equivocation between the two pepper-words in Spanish. If you’re wondering why on Earth you’d call two wildly different looking foods by the same name, we need to look at their usage, and at a type of peppercorn that has largely fallen out of favour. As for usage, black pepper and chili peppers are both popular for their ability to add zest, spice, and intensity of flavour to food. This similarity is why chilies absolutely took off when introduced to India; they were easily substituted for black pepper, and cooks took to them immediately. But a peppercorn looks nothing like a chili pepper right? Well, as it turns out, before the ubiquitous black peppercorn swept the world, much of the spice trade actually centered around its very close relative the long pepper. Thankfully, this name actually makes sense – long peppers are indeed long. They still don’t look exactly like chilies, but they look a heck of a lot closer.
The Portuguese and their incredibly extensive trade routes rapidly spread the ingredient throughout the world, where all sorts of names got slapped on it, which brings us back to Japan. The Tō portion of tōgarashi literally translates to Tang (like the dynasty) and is a reference to China, where the peppers enjoyed widespread acceptance. This means that shishito effectively breaks down to “lion-dog Chinese.” The karashi part (which becomes garashi when a vowel prefaces it) also refers to spicy mustard, which was a prominent source of heat in Chinese and Japanese cooking at the time. From what I can tell, the word was also adopted in deference to the fact that the chilies were ground into a spicy powder in, allowing them to be used in very much the same manner that mustard enjoyed.
I’m not sure if the “Chinese mustard” name is a reference to the chili pepper’s popularity in China, or a mistaken belief that it originated there (if you know, tell me). The Portuguese actually spread the chili pepper so rapidly around Asia and it caught on so quickly that many believed for a time that the peppers actually originated in Asia. In fact, the wildly hot pepper Capsicum chinense (lit. Chinese pepper) is native to South/Central America (as are all peppers). However, it had become so popular and widespread in Asia that when Dutch biologist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin encountered and named the species in 1776, he believed that it was native to China. Interestingly (and rather uniquely), the black peppercorn has never been very popular in Japan, but that doesn’t mean that the linguistic conflation between chilies and peppercorns didn’t happen there too. Chili peppers were originally called nanban kosho in Japan. Nanban means ‘Southern barbarians,’ a term that referred to the Portuguese, who enjoyed lucrative trade in the region before Japan decided to effectively shut its doors on the world in 1633. As for kosho, it means – you guessed it – pepper.
Phew, still with me? Alright. This is pretty easy to make, and a few little tips turn it into a breeze.
Shishitos are thin-skinned and relatively mild peppers. The fact that they’re fairly thin is what makes them work well in this recipe – a thicker pepper might char well, but it the thicker flesh will steam and become soft as it cooks, giving you an altogether different texture. If you can’t find shishito peppers, padrón peppers make an excellent choice.
Shishito peppers, like most peppers, are green when immature and red when mature. You’ll mostly find green ones for sale, but red peppers (or half-red ones) are perfectly good to use too, as the pictures can attest.
I’ve seen multiple references to the unpredictable heat of shishitos, though I’m not sure how accurate this is. They’re generally mild, but you’ll see many claims that 1 in 10 (or 12) will be very spicy. Certainly this is something that happens commonly with all sorts of normally mild peppers, but given that the degree of spiciness varies based on several growing conditions (and can vary even on the same plant), the percentage-based odds don’t make much sense. I didn’t have a single overly hot pepper in this entire batch. Nonetheless, do keep in mind that you may occasionally encounter a very hot pepper.
I used avocado oil for this recipe because a) it’s got a REALLY high smoke point, and b) I had some. You can use any number of high-smoke-point oils, but don’t use something like extra virgin olive oil, as it will burn too easily. You’ll also notice that I didn’t use much oil. The idea here is to sear the peppers without frying them in oil, and in order to do that it helps if you have a very well seasoned wok or frying pan. If you struggle with getting the right char (and/or with smoke issues) you can either add a little more oil, or you can use the grilling method I’ve detailed in the recipe below.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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