Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Golden Pepper

Recently, we received an inquiry about Ogon pepper, a golden pepper which we brought back from our first trip to Japan and wrote about a couple of years ago. The reader asked what kind of pepper it was and how to get seeds, so we decided to research the Ogon pepper and share our findings.

The Ogon pepper (ogon togarashi 黄金唐辛子 or ogon bansho 黄金蕃椒) is known to be the spiciest pepper in Japan. Its shape is like that of a bird chili with a yellow color. Some Japanese websites postulate that Kento-shi, the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty, who brought it from China in the year 809. This theory is not widely believed however.

The more widely accepted belief is that the chili pepper originated in Central and South America and that most likely, no chili peppers existed in China or India until some time after Christopher Columbus found the species in
1492 and brought it back to Spain. It was from there, through trade with the East, that it spread throughout India and then Asia.

Japanese historians believe that chili peppers were introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants. Another story is that a Portuguese missionary introduced the chili pepper to Otomo Yoshishige, a daimyo (feudal lord) in Kyushu in1542.

From that time forward, the Japanese people cultivated the the chili pepper for use as medicine.
It is recorded that 100 kinds of peppers were grown in the mid-18th century and that during the Meiji period (1868 -1912), there were 52 types of chili pepper in cultivation. At that time, Japanese chili peppers were of high quality, highly valued, and exported overseas. However, as greater industrialization in Japan began a migration to the cities in the1960's, farming became less attractive, and cheaper peppers from overseas took the place of those that had been grown domestically. Today, most of the chili's in Japan come from China.

So, when did the Ogon pepper come to Japan? We couldn't pinpoint the exact date but there is record of the Ogon pepper in an historical text called "Bansho-fu" (chili pepper category book) written by Hiraga Gennai (1729-1779). In "Bansho-fu," Gennai compiled information on 72 varieties of chili pepper along with beautiful illustrations of each. He referred to the Ogon pepper as "sashiage" in his book.

Hiraga Gennai was a kind of Japanese Renaissance man. He was a pharmacologist, student of western medicine, physician, inventor, and author. Gennai was born into a low-ranking samurai family in Kagawa-ken. His interest in natural science started while working in the medicinal herb garden of his lord. He went to study Rangaku (Dutch medical studies) in Nagasaki, then to Osaka to study herbs and finally to Edo (Tokyo). There he met a group of doctors and scholars studying empirical science. His inventions include the Erekiteru (electrostatic generator), Kandankei (thermometer), and Kakanpu (asbestos cloth). His most important book is "Butsurui Hinshitsu," the book on the classification of various materials published in 1763. As was often the case with enlightened men of genius, his ideas were thought to be eccentric. After being largely unappreciated for his intellect, his life took a fateful turn when one day, he got into argument with one of his pupils and accidentally killed him. Gennai spent the rest of his life in prison and died there.

Back to the original question of where to buy Ogon pepper seeds. From looking at various websites and blogs, it seems that they can be purchased in Japan at any home center or garden store (places that sell seeds and plants). If you'd like to bring the seeds to the U.S. however, it takes a bit more time and planning.

Bringing seeds to the U.S. is not simple. Many countries have strict rules on which plants or plant products can be brought in or out. The reason is that each country wants to protect their own native plants from new disease or the spread of pests. An example of this is the Asian long-horned beetle infestation which was discovered in New York City in 1996. Officials believe that wood packing material from China in 1980's carried the beetles, and that they then spread quickly within the U.S.
Although a number of fruits and plants are prohibited from being brought into the U.S., seeds are usually permitted.

To bring the seeds into the U.S., one must visit a Plant Protection Station (PPS), which are located throughout Japan and submit them for inspection after which the PPS will issue an Official Phytosanitary Certificate. So, it is possible for the Ogon pepper to make its way to America.

We can only hope that sooner or later, we may be able to buy Ogon pepper in the U.S!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Sake with Friends

The evenings throughout the week in Tokyo were reserved for delving into the multitudinous opportunities to indulge in drinking sake and eating some of the best food made to accompany it. Fortunately (and not coincidentally), my Tokyo-based friends share this passion (three of them being bloggers on the subject, and one a world-renowned sake guru) so choosing places to go to partake were not an issue. On separate evenings, Melinda and her husband J.P., Etsuko-san and her husband Ted, Hitomi-chan and sister Hanayo-chan, and John all led me to extraordinarily fine sake and drink. The photos will attest to it!

Etsuko-san and Ted took Hitomi-chan and me to Yoshimoto in Shinjuku where we ordered flight after flight of jizake to drink with Chef Ohara-san's exquisitely prepared sashimi and his own sake-friendly creations. The Kishi sisters and I discovered Ishii, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Yamagata prefecture where we ate the tenderest, most flavorful, crispy, and light tonkatsu (pork cutlets) imaginable.

My final day with John Gauntner was a tour of sake "through the drinking glass" (as our friend Melinda has perfectly named her blog about eating and imbibing in Tokyo). After attending a tasting of the sake of about twenty breweries from Shimane prefecture, John and I made a brief stop at the Hasegawa Saketen in Tokyo Station to pick up a bottle of Izumo Fuji Ginjo, an artisanal sake discovered at the tasting, then hopped back on the train and set out for my sake purchasing Mecca, Ajino Machidaya. Two trains and a zig-zagging twenty minute hike later, we reached our destination. It was all that I had hoped it to be and more with all sorts of small production premium sake to bring back to enjoy with our nihonshu-loving friends in NYC. Kimura-san, the owner and shacho, introduced us to two of his recent koshu finds and generously offered a package of wonderful organic mugi (barley) miso.

After an hour of fascinating conversation and drink, he drove us to the railroad station and sent us on our way back to Shibuya for an izakaya dinner by Chef Kawanairi at Nakamura that put the perfect cap on the perfect day.